As local elections approach, threat of low student voter turnout looms

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With local elections approaching in November, some are concerned about the perennial issue of low student engagement in Berkeley politics.

As of Aug. 12, about 29 percent of registered Berkeley voters will be between the ages of 18 to 29 years old by Nov. 8, according to Alameda County Registrar of Voters data. Past voting trends show, however, that a majority of these eligible, student-aged voters fail to participate in elections.

In the June primary election, while about 8,800 of young Berkeley people voted, more than 13,300 other young voters did not. Additionally, only about 28 percent of eligible student-aged voters participated in the the November 2014 midterm elections.

“A lot of people aren’t interested in politics,” said Trisha Agrawal, a recently appointed student commissioner on the Peace and Justice Commission. “Voting is a consequence of people’s beliefs, values and passions about issues. So the focus shouldn’t be getting people to vote. … A deeper issue is getting people excited.”

Some community members cite a lack of knowledge about local issues as a reason for low student voter turnout. Olivia McGovern, field director for the Cal Berkeley Democrats, said it tends to be more difficult for new students to get involved with local politics because they are usually trying to get acquainted with UC Berkeley.

“Many students don’t know who their City Council representatives are or what council district they live in,” said Ben Gould, a UC Berkeley graduate student who is running for Berkeley mayor.

In fact, the low student engagement may just be a side effect of Berkeley being largely a college town, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents student-majority District 7. Student-aged voters who were not born in Berkeley may instead choose to vote in their home districts where they initially registered.

Though he would like to see more students vote in Berkeley, Worthington said there is nothing wrong with students employing a “smart, strategic vote” to influence the election in their hometown, which may be in a swing state.

“When students do get engaged, they can actually make the difference between who wins and who loses,” Worthington said.

But ASUC External Affairs Vice President André Luu said student involvement is not as low as residents think. Students mobilized around a group living accommodations ordinance last year, Luu said, which would have placed stricter regulations on alcohol consumption and social gatherings.

In addition, public campaign financing Measure X1 would not be on the ballot without convincing from the UC Berkeley student chapter of Common Cause, Worthington said.

“We have to pave the way for the students who are coming behind us, who will face the same adversities and challenges we face today,” said Brianna Rogers, who was also recently appointed as a student on the city Planning Commission.

Planning Commission chair and District 5 candidate Stephen Murphy said the students he has worked with on the commission add a “fresh perspective” to issues such as housing and transportation, because students may have different priorities and problems.

As voters also gear up for the presidential elections, community members are divided on whether the national elections will shed or take away light from local issues.

“More people will be getting involved and voting, and while they’re voting for president, quite a few of them will vote for mayor,” Worthington said, who is also running for Berkeley mayor.

But Rogers said there will be many voters who will simply select a presidential candidate and turn their ballot in — all the more reason, she said, for local officials to reach out to students and educate them about city issues.

And student outreach efforts are already in full swing. According to Luu, the ASUC is planning on providing voter guides with information about state propositions and local measures as well as the ASUC perspectives on them. In addition, students can register to vote at Friday’s ASUC-sponsored VOTECHELLA event and meet the Berkeley mayoral candidates at a forum on campus Monday.

Gould said efforts should be made to free students’ schedules on voting day, such as excusing class absences and distributing policy information through campus emails. He also suggested having ballot drop boxes closer to campus, instead of just in Downtown Berkeley.

“When I was an undergraduate student, I personally had a mail-in ballot but wasn’t able to get it in on time, so I understand (the difficulties in) getting your ballot mailed in as a student,” Gould said.

In addition, McGovern said on-campus polling places might also improve voter turnout. Both Unit 1 and Unit 3 will serve as polling locations in November, according to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

The deadline to register to vote in California is Oct. 24.

Contact Fionce Siow at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fioncesiow.