CALPIRG’s New Voters Project Helped Turn Out Youth Vote

CALPIRG Education Fund’s New Voters Project ensured that thousands of newly eligible young voters registered to vote, received non-partisan information about what was on their ballot, and cast a ballot by Election Day. In total, our team helped register more than 6,000 students to vote and made more than 500,000 Get out the Vote contacts. Here are our highlights, lowlights, and recommendations for future elections.

CALPIRG Education Fund’s New Voters Project ensured that thousands of newly eligible young voters registered to vote, received non-partisan information about what was on their ballot, and cast a ballot by Election Day. In total, our team helped register more than 6,000 students to vote and made more than 500,000 Get out the Vote contacts. Student volunteers hosted tables, phonebanks, and textbanks to get their peers out to the polls. Our team also held “Parties at the Polls” and other Election Day events to get students engaged and excited to vote. The parties featured music, free food, photo booths, balloons, a “vote goat,” and non-partisan information for students going to cast their ballot. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came to the UCLA party. Turnout was so unexpectedly high, some polling locations on college campuses including UC San Diego (which saw a 123% increase in turnout from 2014) and UC Riverside ran out of ballots.

A student in line at 11:30pm at UC Riverside—three and a half hours after the official close of the polls—told CALPIRG Organizer and UC Riverside alumni Mya Ho “I was a month away from being old enough to vote in the 2016 elections, and when I realized I couldn’t vote, I went home and cried. I promised myself that in 2018 that I’d vote no matter what, no matter how long I’d have to wait. Everyone has a right to exercise their vote. I’m here because I want to make my voice heard.”

CALPIRG Students’ Board Chair Sophie Haddad collected information from all eight of our student chapters and sent a letter of recommendations to Secretary of State Alex Padilla and the current Chairs of the Elections Commmittees. Here’s what she included in the letter:

What went well on college campuses this election cycle: 

  • It was amazing to have conditional voter registration available to students for the first time in a general election. We worked with a lot of students who were registered at their parents’ address and forgot to request a mail-in ballot, whose mail-in ballots didn’t get sent to the right address, or who had missed the registration deadline. Due to the conditional voter registration site, many of these students were still able to cast a ballot! In most counties we had to direct students who needed to utilize conditional voter registration to the county elections office. At UC Santa Cruz, County Registrar placed a conditional voter registration site on campus. Over 800 voters, most of them students, registered and voted in the same day on the campus.

  • Thanks to Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the UC Office of the President committed to providing institutional support for non-partisan outreach in a 2016 Memorandum of Understanding. Campus administrators helped us make thousands of get out the vote contacts with all campus emails and gave us the needed access to classrooms and residential halls to maximize the registration process. All-campus emails and a social media campaign run and paid for by the UC office of the President contributed greatly to student registration, education, and engagement.

  • This year with student support and urging, UCLA worked with the Los Angeles County Registrar to create a centralized precinct polling location for all of the campus precincts. The highly visible, centralized location was easier for students to find and served as a reminder for Election Day on campus in increasing voter turnout. The centralized on-campus precincts had 4,669 students cast a ballot in 2018. In 2014, only 869 students voted in person or by mail-in ballot in 5 student heavy precincts for the UCLA campus.

  • Ballot Drop Boxes installed on campuses like UC Berkeley made it easy for in-county student voters to drop off their ballot. Thousands of students were able to vote by dropping off their ballot, avoiding postage fees and delayed ballot arrival.

  • We hosted eight “Party at the Polls” events on Election Day near the on-campus polling locations, with balloons, live bands, vote goats, free food, bouncy houses, and more. This tactic helped to build the buzz around the election but also drew in thousands of students with questions on voting that we were able to help with.

But we definitely experienced mishaps, long lines, and other barriers to the youth vote. Some barriers we faced include:

  • The UC Riverside precinct polling location ran out of their 1000 provisional ballots by 7 PM. We tried to alert the Riverside County Registrar immediately, but unfortunately additional provisional ballots didn’t arrive until after midnight. Many students walked away, discouraged, but after the polls closed at 8PM, an estimated 100 students remained in line, waiting to vote provisionally using the only option available– one machine that had an average wait time of 20 minutes per person. After midnight, election officials finally arrived with more provisional ballots and then everyone was able to vote and leave within the hour.

  • Wait times for the lines at UCLA averaged over one hour the entire day and at UC Riverside around 3 hours during the day, also deterring many potential voters.

  • Some conditional voting sites were located a great distance from campuses. The LA County Registrar’s only conditional registration site was at their office in Norwalk, about 2 hours away from UCLA by car or public transit (with long wait times once they arrived!) Many students could not travel that far to vote.  

  • People were dropping off their mail in ballots in USPS boxes during the day, but many of those boxes have pick up times before the polls close, and so some mail-in ballots will be postmarked late because of this.

  • Postage on mail-in ballots was another barrier for many students, both due to the cost and the added step of purchasing stamps to send in the ballots. We are excited to hear that starting in 2019, postage will be prepaid.

In sum, we strongly recommend:

  1. Ensuring that conditional voter registration sites are available on each college campus with a sizable student population, and providing the funding needed by county elections officials to implement this policy. Young people, because they are newly eligible and also move frequently, are a population group most in need of an easily-accessible conditional voter registration site,  as seen with the 800+ students who used this resource at UC Santa Cruz. This is particularly important when the existing conditional voter registration site is far from campus.

  1. Ensuring universities are effectively providing online voter registration opportunities, as required by law. While most UC administrators went above and beyond what’s required of them to encourage eligible students to educate themselves and vote, we are concerned that some college and universities’ online voter registration links may not be capturing very many students and could be improved.

  1. Engaging with campus administrators and student leaders to consider one centralized, highly visible polling location on campuses for all students with an on-campus address, like the centralized precinct polling location at the student center at UCLA. This will help centralize resources and get out the vote efforts, help to increase Election Day visibility, and help troubleshoot problems when they occur.

  1. Younger voters in particular are used to receiving information online and on their phones, instead of by mail, and often move frequently. We recommend giving registered voters the option to receive official voting information from election officials by email or even text message, including details such as a voters’ polling location, mail in ballot deadline, and confirming their registration status. Even Florida has an option to receive your sample ballot by email.

  1. In general, allocating more statewide resources to student-heavy precincts so we can avoid the 2+ hour long lines and instances where precincts ran out of ballots and provisional ballots, or more than one electronic voting machine if provisional ballots could run out.

We look forward to working with the Secretary of State and the Elections Committees on implementing these ideas by the 2020 primaries to ensure young people can access the polls and engage in our democracy!


Emily Rusch

Vice President and Senior Director of State Offices, The Public Interest Network

Emily is the senior director for state organizations for The Public Interest Network. She works nationwide with the state group directors for PIRG and Environment America to help them build stronger organizations and achieve greater success. Emily was the executive director for CALPIRG from 2009-2021, overseeing a myriad of CALPIRG campaigns to protect public health, protect consumers in the marketplace, and promote a robust democracy. Emily works in our Oakland, California, office, and loves camping, hiking, gardening and cooking with her family.