By Hannah Esqueda
Merced, Calif.– Election Day this November will mark the first time many students at UC Merced cast their vote in a local, state or national election – and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“It’s really important that the communities who are disenfranchised and have been ignored for so long, turn out and vote. They have power and they can help make a change,” said Brenda Gutierrez, organizing director of Associated Students of University of California, Merced (ASUCM).
The 20-year-old university student spent a majority of her summer going door-to-door in Merced County to help spread the word about several ballot measures and campaigns this year. Her work was part of the ASUCM external office “We Vote” program, a statewide initiative across the UC campuses aimed at getting students more involved in elections.
Originally from Fresno, Gutierrez said she took an interest in Merced’s local politics soon after enrolling at the university. While most of the attention is centered around national politics this election year, she points out that Merced voters also have the chance to create major change at the local level.
This November marks the first time Merced voters will have a chance to select candidates for city council based on districts, a change many hope will result in a more diverse city government. In previous years, elections were held at-large with city council members living in districts they did not represent.
“We’re not only trying to register folks to vote but also to work on voter education and get them informed about some of the big issues this year,” Gutierrez said.
She’s got her work cut out for her, though. In the 2014 mid-term election season, only 8.2 percent of Californians aged 18-24 cast a ballot.
Which is partly why students like Gutierrez have helped spearhead a movement to raise voter registration awareness on campus and introduce new resources to make it as easy as possible for fellow university students to vote.
ASUC members statewide have also been pushing for change, and a bill largely based on student initiatives was introduced at the state legislature earlier this year. The proposed law was designed to open the door for automatic voter registration for all students at the state’s public college and university campuses.
“The legislation was gutted though and the version we wanted didn’t pass,” said Edmundo Martinez, ASUCM senator at large and voter registration coordinator with the group’s external office.
Instead, the bill was changed to address students enrolled online within the California State University and California Community College systems. Assembly Bill 2455 was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September and CSU and CCC campuses must now implement online voter registration systems by July 1, 2018.
While the new law does encourage the University of California to establish similar resources for its own students, many UC students feel like the bill should have gone farther.
The original intent of the legislation, Martinez said, was to make voter registration automatic for college and university students statewide, not just those at certain campuses.
“That would have been amazing,” he said. “The one little block to help people use their voice and make a change would have been gone.”
Until such a law is passed, Martinez said he and other UC Merced students must continue to pick up the slack, promoting registration events and reminding fellow students of the importance of their vote.
“It’s on us,” he said.
The work is often frustrating however, and Gutierrez said one of the main hurdles she and others face when attempting to register fellow students has been dispelling the notion that the signup process would take too long.
“Most people I talk to think it takes 20-30 minutes so they say they don’t have time right now. But it only really takes three to five minutes of your time. It’s surprisingly fast,” she said.
To help demonstrate how simple the process can be, ASUCM and several other student groups are hosting a week-long voter awareness festival from Oct. 18-21.The event will include registration resources and information on major political issues like immigration reform.
“We’re trying to make sure that students can see these issues and see the diversity in UC Merced, especially how there are all these minorities on campus. We want to show the importance that voting has within each of these cultures,” said Leslie Renteria, a sophomore and student organizer with Students Advocating Law & Education (SALE).
SALE is dedicated to representing and empowering undocumented students within the university community and is one of the main clubs organizing the election festival later this month.
Renteria, who is undocumented and therefore unable to vote, said she is passionate about educating others on the various issues as well as helping fellow students exercise their political voice.
While this election season has been particularly divisive, she is hopeful UC Merced’s students will channel that passion into action at the polls.
“I think people are having a lot of conversations about voting but only within their own friend groups. They’re thinking about it but not necessarily putting it into action yet,” she said.
The festival will be a perfect time for students to begin exercising their voice and organizers say they want to fill UC Merced with as much information as possible during the event.
“From my understanding there will be all these different activities that will all tie back in a cute way to voter registration,” Martinez said. “There will be groups with tables and information and it will take up all of Scholar’s Lane [the main walkway through the UC Merced campus].”
“Anywhere you turn there will be a table or group ready to help you register to vote,” he continued.
The live help pairs nicely with several of ASUCM’s previous voter registration initiatives, including providing all incoming freshmen with a voter registration card in a university housing welcome packet at the start of the fall semester. The organization also added a ‘UCM Votes’ tab to its website in June, which Gutierrez said takes students directly to the California Secretary of State voter registration page.
“I think we’re succeeding in our voter registration efforts. We’re doing a good job of making it easy for them while also making sure that students know the weight of [this year’s election],” she said.
Martinez agreed and said that an internal ASUC poll conducted last year named UC Merced the top UC campus for voter registration
“I was pretty excited when they contacted me to let me know we’d won. It really shows that our work is making a difference,” he said.