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UC and CSU Schools to Implement Civic Engagement Programs Under New California Law

By: Danielle Dawson

Students in California public universities are the target of the Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Act, a new civic engagement act that consolidates and delegates voter outreach to university administration, aiming to counteract historically low student-voter turn-out and promote active political participation.

The Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Act, established in Assembly Bill 963 introduced by Democratic State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, representing the 74th Assembly District, requires the California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) and requests University of California (UC) campuses to engage in voter outreach efforts meant to promote student civic knowledge, political engagement and participation in future elections.

According to the act, schools could approach these efforts in a variety of ways — particularly through the designation of a “Civic and Voter Empowerment Coordinator” that oversees and organizes all outreach efforts. 

This new position is required to create an action plan for fostering civic engagement tailored to the characteristics and needs of their student population, utilizing methods of outreach such as the distribution of campus-wide emails and posting important voter information on social media.

“We want to provide our students with the necessary tools to be engaged citizens, to shape their own political reality and create the future of the great state of California,” Petrie-Norris said in a Facebook post following the Governor’s signature on the bill. 

According to Joshua Block, the ASUCI UC I Decide Commissioner, UCI is “in great shape” to implement changes to comply with the new act. Block said that the school plans on engaging in more activities to reach out to students, particularly through the distribution of campus-wide emails, informational videos for professors to play in classes, and by establishing a partnership with the Orange County Registrar of Voters to host election-specific events for students. 

“I have a very robust action plan that I am looking forward to implementing,” Block said. “I am particularly glad that the Assemblywoman’s bill asks the [school]  administration to develop an action plan with the students, so that we can have a deeper synergy between us.”

The California Secretary of State is to oversee the new civic engagement program — collaborating with campuses to provide accurate voter information, in addition to monitoring the program’s success.

“The new Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Program will lead to [an] even greater collaboration between the Secretary of State’s office and California’s colleges and universities,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “Working together, we can equip our students with the tools and information they need to become active citizens and develop lifelong voting habits.”

The bill was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on Oct. 8, along with a series of other bills aimed at fostering voter participation. These bills implement a variety of changes in how elections operate in the state, creating expanded access to ballot boxes, greater campaign accountability and a more transparent approach referendum procedures in local elections. 

“Voting is the foundation of our democracy,” Newsom stated in a press release regarding this legislative package. “It is critical that we expand access to the ballot box for all eligible voters, while strengthening the integrity of our elections.”

National voter turn-out in recent years has been consistently low with students being one of the least politically active demographics. According to a study of the 2014 midterm elections conducted by the United States Census Bureau, 19.9% of voters between the ages of 18 and 20 participated, compared to 35.6% of voters ages 30 to 40, 49.6% of voters ages 45 to 64 and 59.4% of voters ages 65 and up.

The 2018 midterm election saw a 15.7% increase in young voter turn-out. However Petrie-Norris believes that more can be done to reach out to eligible young voters to ensure that their voices are heard.

“We need to empower a new generation of voters, especially immigrant, low-income, and youth of color,” Democratic State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, representing the 24th State Senate district, said. “We will build the most democratic society when a significant part of our community is a part of the process.”

According to Block, UCI has a history of minimal political activism and engagement compared to most colleges — something he believes could be combatted through a greater collaboration between campus organizations, faculty, ASUCI, and students.

“I don’t think [low levels of student political engagement on campus] will be something UCI can solve in a year, but we have to begin somewhere,” he said.

The program is slated to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.