College Voters Are Still a Missed Opportunity in S.F.

Although many are cautiously optimistic that youth will turn out to vote in the midterms, San Francisco’s two biggest universities have contrasting approaches to tap into college-age voters.

Even before the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Fla., sparked student activism nationwide, adults had looked to the kids to save us all from a bleak world.

In April, big smiles emerged on their faces as high school students marched for their lives down San Francisco’s Market Street and dared to feel inspired by the pre-registration drives that countered notions of millennial apathy. A cohort of those high school students has since begun college, and Democrats could rake in their votes.

A Harvard poll released Monday found that 40 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said they would “definitely vote” in November, choosing Democrats over Republicans by 54 to 43 percent. If the poll’s findings hold, Election Day turnout would mark a dramatic increase from its previous high of 21 percent, set in 1986 and 1994.

Only one of San Francisco’s universities has dramatically rethought its role in tapping into this zeitgeist. 

After the 2016 presidential election, the University of San Francisco — which prides itself on social justice and civic engagement — needed to respond to such a shocking electoral event in a way that encourages its student body to make an impact at the ballot box.

“It’s definitely a mindset shift we’re trying to implement,” says Angeline Vuong, a program manager with the university’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. “It’s never been an institutional or campus-wide effort.”

USF’s turnout for the 2016 election stood at 54.6 percent of student voters, Vuong says. Starting with that information in June 2017, a group of roughly 30 students with the McCarthy Center developed a three-pronged approach of registration, education, and getting students out to vote.

From the moment a student arrives for orientation, a USF Votes registration booth is there not only to enlist voters, but to convey that the campus is civic-oriented. Tabling at every event with the help of TurboVote, laptops, and tablets, the group registered more than 3,600 students on a campus of 11,000. Plus, the McCarthy Center hangs onto their emails to remind them to cast their ballot in November and to double-check their addresses, usually in April.

By comparison, San Francisco State University’s Associated Students reports that roughly 60 students registered through their campaign out of roughly 30,000 students in attendance. Through a campaign with the Secretary of State, a group of eight declined paper registration and instead passed out flyers with QR codes and a texting service that would send a link to register to vote, says Associated Students Vice President of External Affairs Garrick Wilhelm.

State funds cannot be used to influence elections, which means a voter-registration campaign must work with student fees.

“SFSU is extremely strict when it comes to risk management and compliance,” Wilhelm says. “They’re extremely cautious of how they engage with the ballot.”

The deadline to register online or by mail has passed, but both schools are pushing to get students to the polls, where they can register on Election Day and vote provisionally. The Seven Hills Conference Center, on SF State’s campus across from the dorms, will serve as a polling location once again and Wilhelm says that Associated Students is banking on a block party funded by a Young Invincibles grant to increase turnout.

USF has also hosted different conversations on the November ballot, voter suppression, and civil rights to further encourage students to vote, if not for themselves, then for the people around them who can’t — be they formerly incarcerated, undocumented, facing language barriers, or in a county that purged its voter rolls.

Vuong and Fox have found that local measures like Proposition C, the gross-receipts tax to fund homelessness services, and Proposition 10, a repeal of statewide rent-control restrictions, have been of the most interest to USF students. There’s also been an increase in students registering to vote in San Francisco, rather than the absentee voting that allows them to vote back at home.

USF sophomore Amaya Fox, the campaign’s lead student ambassador, says her approach is to ask person by person why they may be reluctant to vote and reminding them that items on the ballot affect their day-to-day lives, whether they like it or not. After the 2016 presidential election, she herself felt disheartened and unmotivated.

“It’s moments like that when I can’t just sit back and let our democratic process work like this,” Fox says. “I’m going to have my say in it, and I’m going to get my generation to keep voting.”

Fox has frequently updated her own social media with registration information, as well as texting her family and friends to the point of presumed annoyance.

“I tell them, you know, Nov. 7 I’ll take a break,” Fox says.


Read more from SF Weekly‘s election issue:

Why the Hell Don’t We Get Election Day Off?

Congress has a sneaky rule that only 10 federal holidays are allowed each year, and they’re all taken. Now, big businesses are taking matters into their own hands.

Nothing’s Good Enough for PETA, Including Prop 12

Why does the animal-rights organization oppose a California prop that would create better lives for farm animals?

The Speech Donald Trump Could Deliver to Triple His Support in San Francisco

In 2016, Trump received 37,688 votes in S.F., or 9.2 percent of the total. He can wield his dark magic and go a lot higher.

Chem Tales: A Guide to Cannabis on the Ballot

Here’s a quick primer on where marijuana fits into the midterm elections.

Is This Man the Future of the California Democratic Party?

Fremont freshman Congressman Ro Khanna is not about to let tech illiteracy on Capitol Hill get in his way.

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