A couple of weeks ago, I sat in The Daily Californian office with a stack of voter registration forms, helping staffers to register to vote.
You’d think that in an office of civically minded journalists who have been eagerly following the election since Day One, we’d all be registered to vote. And while most forms I helped fill out were for routine address changes, several were for people who’d never registered to vote in the first place — proof that the nonvoting American, seemingly a unicorn in this liberal bastion of the United States, is alive and well.
I shouldn’t be surprised.
My sister didn’t vote in the California primaries, because they were at the same time as her college graduation in Vermont and she was overwhelmed and it was too hard to find a mailbox in time. My friend didn’t vote because she was in a different state during the primaries and couldn’t get her ballot. The list goes on.
Even when you look at our own campus track record with the ASUC, the turnout in 2016 totaled a paltry 12,559 students, about half the undergraduate population, even though the online voting and automatic voter registration make participating in democracy as easy as it might ever be.
In my opinion, there’s only one valid reason not to vote — that is, because you can’t. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, maybe because you’re an international student or undocumented, I sympathize with you and apologize for yet another column telling you why you need to vote. But for the rest of us, as my dad (and Woody Allen, originally) always says, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” That goes for voting, too.
The arguments I could cite to explain why voter turnout matters have been beaten to death. “It’s your civic duty,” or “People have died for you to have the right to vote” or “So many people’s voices are being stifled because they can’t vote — how dare you be apathetic,” etc. I can’t tell if these arguments make any tangible difference, though, or if they’re even reaching the population that matters.
I don’t see the point in shaming someone into voting. But I think one of the biggest reasons people don’t vote, buried in their excuses of not having enough time or energy, is voter apathy — the sense that your vote doesn’t matter.
The sense of futility is understandable in non-swing states like California, where even though I’ve just had the opportunity to vote for the first time for a woman for president, I know my vote won’t do much good. But UC Berkeley voters, believe me: When it comes to local and statewide elections, your vote matters.
In 2012, student support almost definitely contributed to the defeat of Measure S — which would have banned sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts during the day, effectively targeting homeless individuals — and to the passage of Proposition 30, which increased funding for K-12 schools and universities.
Measure S failed by a margin of less than 5 percent, or less than 3,000 votes, and precincts close to campus, with high student populations, voted mostly against the measure. Proposition 30, which passed with 55.4 percent of the vote, saw more than 80 percent in favor in most precincts in District 7, which includes most of the south side of campus.
Clearly, students who do vote have strong opinions. But does that prove their vote even counts? The margin of passage for Proposition 30 was almost 1.5 million across the country. Subtract the hypothetical impact of 25,000 Berkeley students’ votes, and the measure still would have passed.
So, I invite you to take a look at the case study of the 2014 District 7 City Council seat.
District 7 is the student-majority district first passed in 2013 and solidified in 2014, that was created to include more UC Berkeley students and give them a better chance at representation. Although no student ran for the seat in 2014, students still had a chance to elect a sympathetic voice in Sean Barry, a recently UC Berkeley graduate and former Daily Californian news editor who was challenging the incumbent, Kriss Worthington. Barry ultimately lost to Worthington by 170 votes.
But consider this: roughly 1,805 votes were cast for the race, compared with 8,565 registered voters — resulting in a dismal 21 percent turnout. Popular student precincts like the UC residence halls saw turnout of about 15 percent or less. Even if an additional 2 percent of registered voters participated, and those additional votes went to Barry, it could have changed the race.
Put a different way, the number of votes needed to give Barry a win over Worthington is about one-tenth the enrollment of John DeNero’s CS61A class.
And local change breeds statewide and national change. Local politicians can use their office as a springboard to bigger roles, and local measures — such as Berkeley’s soda tax — serve as a model for the rest of the country.
It’s too late for this election, but it’s not too late to register and vote in other elections. Exercise your government-given right, whether you think it’s your civic duty or not, whether you’re voting blue or red, whether it’s your first election or your 19th.
Contact Katy Abbott at [email protected]