As the 2022 midterm elections near, a question looms: will UC Berkeley students’ voices be heard this November?
UC Berkeley has a reputation as one of the most politically active campuses in the country. Students regularly grapple with hotbed issues like housing insecurity, abortion rights and climate change in the streets and at the ballot box.
When it comes to local politics, however, campus students may not have as much of a voice as their raw numbers suggest, according to Elisabeth Watson, former chair of the Berkeley Independent Redistricting Commission.
“It’s undeniably a substantial part of our population,” Watson said of UC Berkeley’s student cohort. “They probably vote a little less locally, but students are counted as Berkeley residents according to the rules of the census.”
With more than 45,000 campus students and a city population of approximately 117,000 people, many assume students represent a third of the city’s population. However, according to Watson, a significant proportion of students live outside the city’s boundaries, with a smaller number lacking housing altogether, which creates additional barriers to voting.
Ultimately, Watson said, the number of campus students counted among Berkeley’s population is closer to 30,000. That figure may also include students who vote in their hometowns rather than in Berkeley, she added.
Many areas heavily populated by students — including the UC Berkeley campus, Telegraph Avenue and the Southside neighborhood — are encompassed by city council district 7. City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who is also currently a campus graduate student, has led the district since 2018 and is running for reelection in November.
Despite the transience of individual students, Robinson emphasized that the student population should be well represented on the council given the impact of city politics on their lives. Even with low student engagement historically, he expressed optimism for the upcoming election as students returned to in-person learning in Berkeley.
“It is imperative that student voices be heard in City Hall and on the ballot this November,” Robinson said. “We’re gonna be mobilizing students all over the city to get out the vote.”
However, the level of representation on the Berkeley City Council for students is “lacking,” according to Nathan Mizell, campus alumnus and vice chair of the city’s Police Accountability Board. Controversy stewed earlier this year over the Independent Redistricting Commission’s alleged failure to adequately represent students among the council districts.
While campus students interested in political engagement are capable of joining the city’s commissions on public safety, police reform and more, Mizell noted, students are underrepresented on every city commission. He attributed this discrepancy to insufficient financial stipends and a lack of awareness around these commissions.
The absence of an affinity toward city politics is not a burden borne by Berkeley alone — students are more likely to have higher awareness of federal politics than local politics, simply due to the groundbreaking nature of Congress bills passed on gun safety, student debt and other issues, noted ASUC External Affairs Vice President Bailey Henderson.
It is easy for students to feel like their votes don’t matter, Henderson added, particularly in the echo chamber-like environment of UC Berkeley. Henderson said this makes it all the more important that students pay attention to specific policies that are on the ballot for the state or the city.
In addition, Henderson said urban concentration and students who vote in their hometowns also contribute to elected officials not always being representative of the age demographics of their constituents.
Among America’s youth, registration and voting rates are toward the lower end of the spectrum. According to Henderson, this is due to barriers to entry that actively prevent high turnouts among younger generations.
“Many students tend to vote in lower numbers,” Henderson said. “It’s just because of a lack of access to voting locations, knowledge and resources, while older folks often are retired, they have more money, they have more mobility to reach those areas.”
Still, voting rates are relatively high in UC Berkeley at 75.0% in the 2020 general election compared to 66% among all U.S. colleges, according to a report from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.
The report also noted 84.3% of eligible student voters were registered to vote in 2020 — an all-time high, according to Henderson.
The Vote Coalition — the ASUC’s official nonpartisan civic engagement department — consists of campus’s primary student coordinators for civic engagement, voter registration and voter education efforts, according to Alex Edgar, the organization’s director. He said the coalition’s goal is to achieve 100% student voter registration and 95% student voter turnout by 2030.
“We hope to increase students’ civic education and foster a culture of democratic participation through an aggressive campaign of voter registration and turnout drives, civic education resources, and other civic programming,” Edgar said in an email.
Edgar added that the coalition will be hosting events almost daily in the run up to the Oct. 24 deadline to register to vote online or by mail, working in conjunction with Henderson’s Office and CALPIRG to register voters on Upper Sproul Plaza.
Edgar emphasized barriers that still disenfranchise people of color, younger generations and other underrepresented groups in the state
“The vast majority of current college students are members of Generation Z, a generation that has yet to elect an individual from our age group to Congress,” Edgar said in an email. “As more Gen Z individuals reach the voting age, it is essential that we make sure they are as engaged as possible in our democracy.”
However, California is one of the “best states for voting rights,” Edgar noted, with universal vote-by-mail capabilities making the voting process relatively easy compared to the rest of the country.
Those in California are also more open to hearing the perspectives of people from minority or underrepresented groups than people in other states, according to campus junior Stephen Salazar. However, a “systemically crooked” system can dishearten many student voters, Salazar noted.
“Historically, just knowing the root of the government in general in the U.S., with urbanization and westward expansion, you can see how certain systems are built for white people,” Salazar said. “In general, it kind of lets people see that it is difficult to get a voice out there.”
Still, Salazar emphasized the importance of people being more knowledgeable about the propositions and candidates on the ballot.
Meanwhile, Christiáne Munda, a campus sophomore, emphasized that she would like to believe her vote is “extremely important.”
“Women fought for the right for future generations of women to do so, employing civic duty on modern-day citizens to cast their vote,” Munda said in an email. “People should prioritize voting because not only are you deciding which political propositions are vital to your beliefs as a citizen, but you’re actively impacting your tax dollars as well!”
According to Munda, because everyone’s vote holds an equal amount of weight, it is all the more important that she and others educate themselves on political discourse and current events.
Students may be less likely to vote because they think their votes have a small long-term contribution, according to Munda. She called this a common misconception that hurts future generations and empowers low quality officials.
“If you’re not already politically involved, the perception is that California is already left-leaning so you don’t have to worry about a specific issue or a specific policy,” Henderson said. “Being able to see those systems of power, outside of the most visible national level is essential to making sure that we can participate well.”