Considering Automatic Voter Registration

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Illustration by Kaileen Smith.
Illustration by Kaileen Smith.

A new bill making its way through California’s legislature could ensure the nearly 3 million students in the state’s community colleges and universities are registered to vote.

In March, California Assemblymembers Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced The Student Voting Act (AB 2455), a bill that would require California’s community colleges and public universities to start registering the thousands of eligible voters who enroll every year by July 2018.

“Our goal is to have this be the first step toward the establishment of an automated voter registration system for public college and university students,” Chiu said in an email.

Cindy Dinh and Paul Monge, two UC Berkeley law students, suggested the idea to Chiu during his “There Ought to Be a Law” challenge. Eighteen to 24-year-olds have one of the lowest rates of voter registration and turnout — not even 10 percent of the demographic voted in 2014, according to the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.

“Voter registration as a practice has been one of the contributing factors for why young people are not voting at the rates that they should be,” Monge said. “So we wanted to attack that segment of it and address it by the way we approach voter registration as it applies to young people.”

If the bill passes, public colleges and universities have until July 2018 to provide a way for students to register to vote with the information they are given during enrollment. Originally, the proposal would have automatically registered students unless they opted out, but the “automatic mechanism” was replaced so students have to “affirmatively submit their registration” after they sign up for class, Chiu said in an email.

The state is currently working with “UC, CSU and Community College campus leaders to modernize voter registration opportunities,” said Sam Mahood, the press secretary for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

The Student Voting Act can mandate the California State University’s 23 campuses and the state’s 113 community colleges to follow the law, but can only encourage the UC because the system is semi-autonomous under the CA Constitution.

“Even by saying ‘encourages,’ the practice within the UC system is to honor whatever it is they’re being encouraged to do out of good faith,” Monge said. “When we spoke with folks at [UC] President [Janet] Napolitano’s office, they mentioned that anytime it says ‘encouraged,’ we read it as required.”

The vast majority of CA’s approximately 2.8 million public college students are in-state and community college students — the UC only accounts for about 250,000 students.

The California Assembly will vote on AB 2455 this month. If approved, it will move up to the California Senate and then circle back to Assembly for another vote. The final version of the bill will then need to be approved by the Senate and the Assembly before arriving on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk to be signed or vetoed.

“We’ve already been working with the chancellor’s office and people in the community college system and the UC [Office of the President] to make sure what implementation could look like,” Monge said. “These conversations have already begun in part because of the legislative conversation.”

UCSC STUDENTS REACT

The UC Student Association (UCSA), the central body of all student governments across the UC, endorsed the bill in February. But the legislation didn’t receive a warm welcome from UC Santa Cruz’s student government.

After two weeks of debate, UCSC’s Student Union Assembly (SUA) indefinitely tabled an endorsement of The Student Voting Act. The SUA voted on the endorsement before the bill’s language was changed to remove the automatic enrollment mechanism. Before the change, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Sauli Colio worried the automatic function might breach the confidentiality of undocumented students.

“When the resolution came to the SUA there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about some certain parts of the security components,” Colio said. “For example, for students who were undocumented didn’t opt-out. Would their information be kept secure?”

Vice President of External Affairs Guillermo Rogel said at the April 12 SUA meeting UCSA was working with the California Secretary of State to protect the confidentiality of undocumented students.

“[UCSA] wouldn’t sign onto a plan that releases the information to more than just the Secretary of State and the UC — who already have that information,” Rogel said. “Nobody is going to release this information, nor will they have access to it.”

Assemblymember David Chiu also said he takes the confidentiality of undocumented students seriously. Chiu is working with the secretary of state and his colleagues to make sure there are “safeguards and procedures needed to protect the privacy of undocumented students in that process,” he said in an email.

Issues outside student confidentiality persisted. The most vocal opponent of automatic student voting registration was Porter Rep. Eli Guzman-Martin, who argued it would alienate students who don’t want any part in U.S. elections.

“Millennials don’t vote because they feel disenfranchised by the government in the way that people treat them,” Guzman-Martin, who is running for Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion in the spring election, said at the SUA meeting. “I agree that people should vote, but I don’t think that this is the way to go about it.”

The Student Voting Act would no longer automatically register students, instead students would decide if their school can use their personal information to register them to vote after they enroll for classes.

“Voter registration is a form of voter suppression, and we are just trying to remove that,” Guillermo Rogel said. “What I was trying to advocate for is that you don’t have to participate in the system at all beyond just already enrolling in classes.”

Rogel pulled the resolution from SUA and is rewording the endorsement to address the concerns raised by Guzman-Martin and Colio and the changes made to the bill.

He is confident the reworked endorsement will pass before the quarter ends.

“I never really see the SUA engaged in this discussion, so it’s good that this discussion is happening,” Rogel said.