‘A completely different ballgame’: CalPIRG turns out the 2020 vote

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As the largest and most diverse voting demographic in the country, young people are a force to be reckoned with, one of many reasons why CalPIRG is trying to turn out their vote this November, said Michelle Wang, coordinator of the New Voters Project for CalPIRG’s UC Berkeley chapter.

According to its website, California Public Interest Research Group, or CalPIRG, is a student-run nonprofit organization with the goal of addressing societal problems faced by California college students. As one of its many campaigns, the New Voters Project, or NVP, aims to increase civic engagement among college students and encourage them to decide their own futures through democratic participation.

In a typical year, much of NVP’s focus revolves around voter registration, according to Wang.

“We’ll literally come into a class with a stack of voter registration forms and give every student a voter registration form, walk them through the form and then collect every single one and bring them back to the registrar’s office,” Wang said.

Aside from visiting classes, NVP members will initiate “dorm storms,” in which they go from door to door in the dorms to help students register. This is especially important because for most freshmen, it is their first time voting, Wang added.

NVP also conducts tabling, partners with other student organizations interested in turning out the vote, works with UC Berkeley administration to send out campuswide informational emails about voter registration and holds an event on National Voter Registration Day.

According to Wang, NVP helped register 6,000 students in 2018 and 1,090 more during the 2020 primaries.

Once NVP has registered students, Wang added that its next objective is to turn out the vote through methods such as petitioning on Sproul Plaza.

“In the midterm election of 2018, we texted thousands of students personally to tell them that the election is coming up and to go out to vote for the midterms,” Wang said.

Wang also added that CalPIRG tends to host a big event on Election Day. Representatives perch on the steps leading up to Sproul Hall while other members spread out around campus to answer voters’ last-minute questions.

Many of these grassroot efforts, however, have been hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic. As put by Vivek Adury, campaign coordinator for NVP, online voter registration is a “completely different ballgame” than in-person registration. This is a scenario NVP has adapted to through trial and error.

“We had a summer internship program with CalPIRG students just to see what methods work best when it comes to virtual organizing and virtual voter registration and voter mobilization work,” Adury said. “Because the COVID-19 pandemic was something so unprecedented, there was really no time to prepare like this and the best way to move forward was to see what works.”

Some of the tactics they found successful included holding short informational presentations in online classes and club meetings, hosting a seminar at Golden Bear Orientation, promoting voting competitions between residence halls and networking.

According to Adury, CalPIRG is taking advantage of relational organizing and peer-to-peer outreach.

“In my personal opinion, it takes a friend to get a friend to vote,” Adury said. “With that in mind, what we’re doing is we’re having our interns, our volunteers and other clubs and organizations on campus exhaust their own contacts to ensure that their communities are registering to vote.”

Adury added that if a friend suggests that someone change their voter address, they are more likely to do so. Though registering strangers is just as important, it was meaningful to him, personally, to be able to help a friend fix their voter registration form.

With Election Day just around the corner, both Wang and Adury stressed the importance of voting during these “unprecedented times.”

Wang added that she has seen young people engaging with propositions and local elections more than ever before and that by getting involved, they have great potential to influence their own futures.

“It’s really important for us as young people who have a substantive stake in the future to actually get our voices out to ensure that the issues that we care about are on the agenda,” Adury said.

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected].