What did we learn from National Voter Registration Day in California?

150 150 Christopher Nelson

In the American democracy conceived by our founding fathers, “voting” is considered one of the inalienable rights we possess.

African-Americans were granted it with the 15th amendment to the Constitution in 1870, but fought other, more subversive forms of suppression for years until the 1960s. Women fought relentlessly for it and eventually gained the right in the early 20th Century.

Yet many people today don’t bother to even register for a privilege that others not too long ago had to fight tooth-and-nail for that right. What’s more, even fewer of those who are registered actually get out and vote, thus excercising their fundamental right to choose who governs them.

That is why a full six weeks before November 6 hits, this Tuesday was designated National Voter Registration Day. National organizations that have been perennial advocates such as Rock The Vote down to many, many state and local organizations joined hands in mobilizing Californians to register.

“Getting registered to vote is just the beginning,” said Dean Logan, Los Angeles County Registrar, at a Rock The Vote sponsored event at Cal State Los Angeles. “After today,” he said, “we need to make sure that all registered voters actually go out and vote.”

Secretary of State Debra Bowen was also in attendance, championing California’s addition this week to the list of nine other states that allow online voter registration. Also this week, news broke that Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that will allow voters to register on the actual day of an election. It’s expected to be implemented sometime in the next two to four years.

“Other states are passing laws making it difficult to register to vote. Well we aren’t one of them, that’s not us,” said Congressman Xavier Becerra of the 31st District at the same event.

The event in Los Angeles was large, with one member of the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas in attendance, several other political luminaries and many eager newly-registered voters.

But elsewhere across the state, registration events were more representative of the dreary statistics California currently owns: just under 73 percent of the 23 million eligible voters in the state are actually registered. Of those, just over 17 million who are registered, an estimated 44 percent, or 7.5 million, of them will actually vote. It’s is why the “likely voters” polls in elections are often the most meaningful to political campaigns.

The bottom line: Less than a third of eligible voters will actually exercise their right to do so.

In Sacramento, outside Sec. Bowen’s office, it was a quiet day. Only 5 people registered and several more than that took informational pamphlets, but one of the officials manning the table said “it’s safe to say that tens of thousands of Californians registered to vote today, whether on paper or online.”

Similarly, in the Central Valley at the Visalia Mall, the League of Women Voters had a table setup where people could register and get information. Only five people had registered there as of noon. One person, Melanie Mulliniks of Porterville stopped by to pick up a voter card for her mother, who she said hadn’t voted in years.

“She didn’t think it was important,” said Mulliniks, who then added that her mother is dissatisfied enough with the Obama presidency now that “she wants to make sure she casts a vote in favor of Romney as the next president.”

And if Ms.Mulliniks mother represents an older, jaded voter, we saw on the other end of the spectrum in Los Angeles that overwhelmingly, many young people didn’t know how, where or by when to register. When we told them it was available online, however, their eyes lit up.

But the gamut of voters did show a general apathy toward voting because of the current political climate, both nationally and and in the state. They are discouraged, they feel left out and they don’t feel that they are given enough information on important issues even when they do choose to vote.

There is hope, however, among the people we spoke with in San Francisco and at the University of California, Berkeley.

In San Francisco, we checked out The Hub on Mission St. which bills itself as “a place-based and online community of over 1,000 Bay Area and 4,000 global changemakers focused on building a better world.” They also have a Berkeley location.

The registration event, sponsored by TIDES and New Media Ventures, had a lot of young, hip-looking volunteers and registrants convened in spaces with exposed brick, open work spaces equipped with smoothie stations as well as free doughnuts.

Among the attendees, access to and funding for education, especially higher ed, were paramount concerns. The same held true for a second event in San Francisco, held at The Hatchery. One person suggested creating an oil severance tax per barrel of oil extracted to fund higher ed as California is the only oil-producing state without such a tax.

Other people there also echoed concerns about growing voter apathy and that people needed to be more educated through nonpartisan efforts that don’t give the appearance of selling an issue or candidate.

At a UC Berkeley event, the Bay Area’s penchant for a high level of voter enthusiasm continued. The organizers were excited about getting people registered and felt like they’re well on their way to achieving their goal of registering 12,000 people this year. As of noon that day, having registered people for four weeks, they were at nearly 1,500. 

Not surprisingly, education reform was also a dominant topic on a public university campus.

Jim Maier (right) stands with a friend at the voter registration event on UC Berkelely campus

“I would definitely try working on making education more accessible and affordable for people. I don’t want money to be a barrier to education,” said Jason Maier, an undergraduate student at the school.

Other students spoke of slashes to funding and grants as the students sink deeper into debt. They also had the same refrain of voter apathy fueled by lack of information and a feeling that one vote simply doesn’t matter.

However, in Maier’s case, it was his peers that sparked his interest in registering the first election he’s eligible for.

“I’m pretty lucky to be surrounded by a lot of motivated people, which is what motivated me to come here today,” he said. “That’s why events like these are really important and cool, because they’re getting that message out there that it really does make a difference.”

In this sense, it’s both a testament to not only the power of the events, but that of one person exercising one voice in the democratic process and telling one other person that they did so because they understand the importance.

It was Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, at the LA event as the co-chair of Voto Latino, who understands the ways in which a voice travels the best:

“The voice that we each have can can travel very far if you register to vote.”

Alexandra Bjerg, Caroline Vance, Cheryl Getuiza, Courtnee Crystal, Niki Woodard and Stacy Danielson all contributed reporting on this story.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson