At the Student March on Sacramento in 2003, a contingent over 10,000 strong, made a huge impact on the perception of community college students in the eyes of legislators and the Governor. Students showed they were willing to get actively involved to voice their dissatisfaction with the proposed cuts to community college budgets and the proposed increases in fees to students. In spite of this show of force, legislators generally ignore the protests of students, citing the fact that students do not vote. Unfortunately, there is some truth to this notion, but through the California Community College Student Voter Registration Project (SVRP), this can be changed.
Students are not the only ones who do not vote in the United States. Only 50-55% of eligible voters actually vote in presidential elections. The percentage is significantly lower for nonpresidential elections. In Canada, the turnout is over 70%, and most other democracies are over 80%. In a ranking of established democracies, the United States ranks 20 out of 21, only Switzerland having a lower voter turnout (Grofman 1995).
However, the statistics for younger voters are even more alarming. According to Mark Lopez, Research Director at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), only about a third of 18-25 year olds vote (2004). Keeter (2002) finds a significant gap in voting between the generations. While 80% of Americans 18 and over are registered to vote, only 60% of 18-25 year olds are registered compared to 89% for those over 55.
Bernard Grofman, professor of Political Science and Social Psychology, University of California, Irvine, points to the process of voter registration as one of the significant barriers to increased voter participation (1995). Voters must update their registration if they change address, name, or political affiliation. Each condition presents another barrier to participation. If the number of registered voters increases, then the number of actual voters will increase as well.
The National Voter Registration Act, also known as the "motor-voter" law, was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 and implemented in California in 1995, enabling applicants at Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register to vote. This has increased the percentage of registered voters in the United States from 71% to 76% (Elections Assistance Commission). However, since many young people are not old enough to vote when they get their first driver's license, DMV voter registration is not very effective for the 18-25 demographic.
Tim Killikelly, a political scientist at City College of San Francisco who works on the Student Voter Registration Project (SVRP), sees the community colleges as strategically positioned to reach out to 18-25 year-old voters, and the SVRP can serve students enrolled in the community colleges as effectively as voter registration at the DMV. In addition, Killikelly points out that, nationally, Latinos and Asians vote less than African-Americans or whites. Given the demographics of the populations they serve, community colleges are also well suited to reach out to potential Latino and Asian voters in their communities.
The project began with one college. In 1998, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) worked with the San Francisco Department of Elections to implement a process whereby students registering for classes could indicate an interest in registering to vote. Key to this effort was Dean of Governmental Relations, Leslie Smith, who is still very active in the project. In May 2003, a proposal for a system-wide Student Voter Registration Project was brought to Consultation, and the Board of Governors officially created a system-wide program in October 2003. Since then, eight districts have joined in the project: San Joaquin Delta, Peralta, Coast, Los Angeles, West Kern, Chabot-Las Positas, Rio Hondo, and CCSF.
What the Student Voter Registration Project entails is relatively simple. When a student registers for classes, whether it is by telephone or increasingly online, a student is asked whether he/she wants to receive voter registration information. If a student answers "yes," information required for the voter registration form is extracted into a file that is uploaded to a central server. All files are then downloaded by the Secretary of State directly from the server. Voter registration forms are generated and mailed to students for party affiliation and signature. Other information on the form is pre-filled to simplify the process further.
While relatively simple, this process requires the assistance of your district's IT department to set up the data extraction. The Chief Information System Officers Association (CISOA) sent out a memo in April that supported the goals of the Student Voter Registration Project. Implementation of the modifications to student data systems is reported to vary from 6.5 to 40 hours. CISOA has also suggested that districts using commercial enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems such as PeopleSoft, Banner, and Datatel, share information to facilitate implementation. The Chancellor's Office has also determined that it is appropriate to use Proposition 98 funds for this project.
Both Tim Killikelly and Leslie Smith are actively encouraging districts to join the project. They cite concerns about the time and resources needed for implementation among IT staff as one of the greatest hurdles facing the project. However, they hope that as more districts join the project, their experience in implementing the data system changes will alleviate concerns and facilitate implementation in other districts. They also point to a forthcoming project on voter education that will complement our student voter registration efforts.
In addition to support for civic engagement among our students, districts may find that increased participation among students can support the district in significant ways. For example, in San Joaquin Delta's recent bond election (Measure L, March 2004), their involvement in the student registration project generated over 1,100 requests for voter registration information. The bond passed by 355 votes out of 118,387 total votes cast. You do the math.
What can you do? As faculty, we strongly support civic engagement among our students, and this includes voting. As a senate, consider a resolution in support of the Student Voter Registration Project. Meet with your student government. While CalSACC and the Student Senate are actively involved in getting the word out about the project, you have more personal contact with students in your district. Meet with your local boards and get their support. Talk about the project with your college president or district chancellor.
CISOA. (2004). Memo of April 4, 2004. Retrieved November 29, 2004, from http://www.academicsenate.cc.ca.us/Legislative/alerts/CisoaLetter.pdf.
Grofman, B. (1995). Questions and answers about motor voter: An important reform that is not just for Democrats. Retrieved November 29, 2004, from http://www.fairvote.org/reports/1995/chp6/grofman.html.
Keeter, S. (2002, Sseptember 19). The civic and political health of the nation: A generational portrait. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved November 29, 2004, from http://www.pewtrusts.com/pdf/public_policy_youth_civic_political_health….
Lopez, M. (2004, March 31). Youth voting and the 2004 election: An interview with Mark Lopez. In Election Focus 2004, U.S. Department of State (Issue 1, No. 7; March 31, 2004). Retrieved November 29, 2004, from http://usinfo.state.gov/dhr/img/assets/5796/elections04_01_04.pdf.
United States Election Assistance Commission. Voter registration and turnout statistics. Retrieved January 25, 2005, from http://www.eac.gov/election_resources.asp?format=none.
For more information about the project, contact Leslie Smith at votereg [at] ccsf.edu or (415) 452-5123/5278. You can get basic information about the project from the senate website http://www.academicsenate.cc.ca.us/Legislative/alerts/StudentVoterRegis tration.pdf