I. In Focus This Week
California polling places: Coming to a campus near you?
Local elections officials express concern about proposed legislation
By M. Mindy Moretti
Conflicts between colleges and the towns where they are located — referred to as town and gown conflicts — have existed for as long as there have been institutions of higher learning.
Often those conflicts center around the usual annoyances of day-to-day life like parking and traffic and noise and drinking. But one of the more volatile town and gown arguments is college student participation in elections.
While some localities fight against college student participation in local elections or putting polling places on college campuses, most state-run institutions of higher education in California already host polling places and two pieces of legislation currently pending in the General Assembly would mandate that.
“We face a huge challenge in California when it comes to college students and voting,” said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation. “Many students are confused about voting-by-mail and, if they are living on campus are unsure of whether to register at their campus address or request a vote-by-mail ballot for their home address. We need to do a better job of educating students about vote-by-mail procedures.”
Sen. Leland Yee (D-8th District) introduced Senate Bill 240. Yee, who has introduced several pieces of election administration legislation through the years announced earlier that he is running for secretary of state in the 2014 race. A piece of legislation similar to SB240 is Senate Bill 267, which was introduced by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-27th District).
Currently the law leaves the location of polling sites — whether on college campuses or not — to the discretion of local elections officials. But under Yee and Pavley’s bills, local elections officials would be required to locate a polling site on the campuses of every California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) campus. Pavley’s bill would also require community colleges to serve as polling places where Yee’s would not.
“As a former civics teacher, I know that engaging students in the democratic system of government is critically important.” Pavley said in a statement. “SB 267 is all about making sure that students have access to the ballot box. With same-day voter registration becoming a reality in 2014, my bill will give students convenient access to register and vote in future elections.”
According to officials with the CSU system, in November 2012 16 of the systems 23 campuses had polling sites located on campus. Only one of the 10 UC campuses failed to host a polling site in 2012.
More than 650,000 students attend one of the CSU or UC institutions.
“In most cases there is a polling place for every one thousand voters in California, however there are tens of thousands of students on our college campuses who often do not have such easy access to vote,” Yee said in a statement when the bill was introduced. “SB 240 will help encourage our young people to vote and provide them the same access to our democracy as voters who live outside of campus.”
According to a spokesperson, the California secretary of state’s office has not taken a position on either piece of legislation, but local elections officials have expressed concern about the possibility of a new mandate.
“I believe that the county elections officials, with input from local community groups, are the best people to decide where polling places are to be located in their county,” said Gail L. Pellerin, Santa Cruz County clerk and who serves on several committees of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO). “Not all CSUs and UCs are the same. Many have very few voters who reside on campus.”
Pellerin noted that her county, home to UC Santa Cruz with an undergraduate enrollment of 15,945 located five polling places on campus in November 2012 and launched an aggressive voter education campaign to make sure students knew that it was best to vote at the polling place where they are assigned and if they are registered in another county and are voting by mail, that ballot has to be mailed to their county of residence a week prior to the election.
But, Pellerin noted previously, not all college campuses are the same not only in population, but also in situation.
“In addition to voter confusion and voter disenfranchisement, other issues that make this proposal not perfect for every campus is that not all campuses have sufficient parking, are accessible and compliant with ADA and Title 24, or have facilities that they are willing to let us use,” Pellerin said.
Jill LaVine, registrar of voters in Sacramento County pointed to the challenges some counties face when they locate a polling place on a college campus.
“Sacramento County was requested to set up a polling place on USCS for the 2012 election,” LaVine said. “Since very few students live on campus this polling place had a very low turnout. In June there were only 3 voters all day. In November 370 students voted provisionally, but 250 were not counted. The students were not registered at the campus, but at their home addresses if at all. This was a very costly polling place for both elections."
According to university officials, UC-Riverside was the only campus not to host a polling site for the November 2012 general election, although the campus did serve as an early voting site for the election.
Kari Vergil, registrar of voters for Riverside County said the decision not to site a polling place on campus was a practical one.
“One of the reasons for not selecting the college as a polling place was due to the high number of commuter students. Commuter college students who live in a different county or city are required to cast a provisional ballot,” Vergil said. “Parking issues for voters who do not attend the college was also a concern. Utilizing UC Riverside as an early voting site provided an opportunity for students to learn about the election laws for casting a ballot at their correct voting location.”
Vergil said if the legislation is approved, it will be vitally important to expand the voter education to college campuses so students are aware that in order to vote on their campus, they must be registered there.
“I believe the bill can be successful if it is combined with a college student voter education component,” Vergil said. “College students often commute to UC Riverside from other cities and counties so it is important for students to understand the laws that govern voter registration and the proper location to vote.”
Pellerin wonders, if either piece of legislation is approved, what sort of slippery slope it would create.
“Imagine if we treated businesses the same way we are proposing to treat UC and CSUs,” Pellerin said. “If we put a polling place at Apple HQ in Cuperintino because it has 13,000 employees... yet those employees live all over and have very different ballot types depending on where they live. Not a good idea!”
Similar legislation was introduced in 2012 (AB 346) but failed to get out of the Senate Elections Committee. Pellerin said CACEO wrote a letter of concern about the legislation.
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