Why COVID-19 Threatens Student Votes in California

3 min
Students wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station on the campus of UC Irvine on Nov. 6, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

This year was supposed to be a comeback year for Kyle Schulz and the College Republicans at Cal Poly Pomona, in eastern Los Angeles County. In 2018, the House district in which the campus resides was caught up in the Blue Wave — sending freshman Democrat Gil Cisneros to Congress.

"We got our butts kicked, to be honest," Schulz said, the club's spokesman and former president. "To work on that, we were doing a lot more campaigning."

But the club's plans for hosting campus events, canvassing the district and registering voters came to a screeching halt in mid-March, when Cal Poly Pomona — like schools around the state — shifted to virtual learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school's College Republicans didn't meet for the rest of the semester.

Now, the pandemic is threatening to scatter students away from campuses in the fall, when California will mail a ballot to every registered voter as a COVID-19-safe alternative to voting in person. The closures could discourage the efforts of campus groups, and make the prospects of turning out the college vote, already a difficult proposition in normal times, even more complicated.

"It's going to be pretty bad, to be honest," Schulz said.

A decline in turnout could have a significant impact in the Pomona Valley and nearby northern Orange County, an area home to a large college population, where a decline in the student vote could affect competitive races up and down the ticket.

Advocates for democratic engagement on college campuses are urging higher education leaders and faculty to take creative approaches to encourage voting, while students are adapting their get-out-the-vote methods for the Zoom age.

"As difficult as it is for someone like me to vote during a pandemic, the college student population is a particularly difficult one," said Adam Gismondi, director of impact at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.

"Because most students are mobile, they often move addresses while they're in college. So it's a really tangled web right now to work through."

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In March, California set a record for turnout in a primary election, fueling hopes of another surge in participation this fall.

Then came the virus, and closures that dashed plans for voter registration efforts at university student centers, shopping malls and front doors across the state.

Voter Registration Challenges

New voter registrations across the country plummeted in the spring, according to data compiled by the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in Washington. Registrations in California were down sharply in April, compared to the same month in 2016.

Unlike four years ago, California's primary was already over by April. But the top reason for the registration drop-off was closures at the state's DMV offices, where drivers license and state ID transactions automatically trigger a voter registration, said David Becker, the center's executive director.

An early study of the DMV automatic voter registration program didn't find wide adoption by younger voters. But the pandemic could also pose challenges for a physically distanced form of sign up: online voter registration.

"It's fundamentally a fairly passive tool, people need to know to look for it," Becker said. "And as we have questions about whether college campuses are going to open up in the fall, the ability to do outreach to large numbers of people is going to be severely limited."

Even if registration efforts improve, the curtailed openings of campuses in the state present a hurdle for ensuring a smooth voting experience for many undergraduates.

A man walks in front of a DMV office in San Francisco on May 8, 2020.
A man walks in front of a DMV office in San Francisco on May 8, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

College students are a mobile population in general, with many moving between dorms, off-campus housing and their childhood homes. Students who are registered to vote may need to update their information in order to receive a ballot at the correct address.

If more students can vote at home, it reduces the chance of long lines at in-person ballot sites, which could be fewer in number than in previous years.

"The need to communicate with voters is going to be particularly crucial in this year," Becker said. "Having good information on the voter lists is the core of that."

Bigger Impact on Southern California Races?

The student vote could be especially important in the districts stretching north from Orange County, through Fullerton and La Habra, to the Los Angeles County cities of Diamond Bar and Pomona.

There, more than 100,000 students attend Cal State Fullerton, Mt. San Antonio College, Cal Poly Pomona and Fullerton College.

On the November ballot, voters in the area will decide on a rematch between Democratic Congressman Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) and Republican Young Kim, the former state Assemblywoman who lost to Cisneros by fewer than 8,000 votes in 2018.

In the similarly shaped 29th State Senate District, Sen. Ling-Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) will defend her seat against Democrat Josh Newman. Newman defeated Chang in the 2016 election, but was recalled by voters in June of 2018, with Chang regaining the seat.

And in the 55th Assembly District, incumbent Phillip Chen (R-Brea) is facing a challenge from Andrew Rodriguez, a Democratic councilman from Walnut.

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In these tight races, Democratic candidates are relying on a boost from reliably liberal college voters. According to the California Target Book, "precincts adjacent to college campuses that have high concentration of voters between the ages of 18 to 34 can easily award over 90% of their votes to a Democratic candidate in a typical D vs. R race, and net the Democratic candidate thousands of raw votes."

The College Democrats at Cal State Fullerton planned to spend the year focusing on those three races, said Andrew Levy, the group's president.

In 2018, voter engagement surged on the Fullerton campus, with the voting rate increasing by nearly a third over the previous mid-term election. The 2,627 CSU Fullerton students who registered to vote marked the second-highest total of any public school in the state.

"We planned on having a lot of people go and phone bank at the local (California Democratic Party) office and canvass in addition to that," Levy said of the group's plans for 2020. "But once COVID-19 hit, it was just kind of a bummer."

Orange County is one of 15 counties that already mail every voter a ballot, which could help the transition to November's largely vote-by-mail election. And the hurdle of constantly shifting student addresses could be eased, in part, by the decision of many incoming freshmen to stay home and attend a community college.

"We actually are seeing a huge increase in the number of students who are registering for classes for Fullerton College, for Mount SAC, for Orange Coast, so there's a lot of students who aren't going to be moving," said Jodi Balma, a professor of political science at Fullerton College.

"But it's a very transient population as far as moving apartment to apartment to dorm to apartment to back home," Balma said. "And so we do want to make sure that people update their registration data."

Like Everything Else, Getting Out the Vote Moves Online

Student organizers are hoping to convey this information to their fellow undergrads by adapting their plans to the distanced reality of the fall; with virtual phone banking and social media campaigns replacing registration tables and door-knocking trips.

"The strategy is still the same: ask every student and create cultures of voting on campus. Students helping students vote through peer-to-peer contact has been shown to be the most effective," said Nic Riani, a rising senior at UCLA and the board chair of the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) Students, which helps run the state's Students Vote Project.

"Obviously, we can't do any of our usual in-person tactics, like waving to students as they walk to class to help them register to vote or going into classes and passing out forms," Riani said. "But we can hop into Zoom lectures to make announcements and build a network of students that are committing to voting and then call and text those students to help them make a plan to vote."

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CALPIRG is running a summer internship program, collecting pledges to vote from more than 3,000 college students in California, Riani said. The group plans to call those students in the fall to make sure they are registered to vote at an address where they can receive their mail ballot.

College administrators and faculty will also have an important role in ensuring a successful student vote in the fall.

Presidents and chancellors can serve as powerful lobbying voices as state and county officials decide on the location of polling places and vote centers. And during distanced learning, professors and faculty will have the most direct access to students, Gismondi said, whose Institute for Democracy & Higher Education has a forthcoming report with recommendations to increase student voting.

"Faculty members, no matter what happens in the fall, will be the most important contact point for college students, because they're really the one group on the university's side that will have guaranteed contacts with students," Gismondi said, who encourages professors to facilitate political conversations and spend class time on the mechanics of voting.

"We think that a lot of the things that colleges and universities can and should do under normal circumstances can still happen," Gismondi added. "It's going to require some flexibility, it's going to require some adaptability and it's going to take some creativity."