Cal State L.A. senior Jason Jimenez didn't hesitate when asked recently why he was registering to vote for the first time. "Prop. 30," he said.
Jimenez was referring to the November ballot measure that would temporarily raise state sales taxes and the income taxes of high earners. It's being touted as the only way to avoid tuition increases this year at California's public universities, and if it passes, Cal State students could get a tuition rebate.
"I've got to vote for that. Because if tuition keeps going up, it's going to get tougher and tougher every year for college students," Jimenez, 22, a computer information systems major, said after he filled out a registration form during a recent campus event.
Beyond the presidential election and the economy, the fate of Proposition 30 is triggering a high level of student interest and activity at California's public colleges and universities this fall.
From San Diego State to Los Angeles City College to UC Berkeley, campus groups are hosting rock concerts, holding presidential debate parties, canvassing in cafeterias and plazas, and posting online "calls to action" in hopes of registering more students and getting them involved in the effort.
Some political experts, and students themselves, say this election season is engaging to college-age voters because Proposition 30 could substantially affect their pocketbooks and their chances to enroll in classes — and graduate on time.
As a result, some predict a surge from the traditionally low turnout of these voters.
Proposition 30 "is definitely going to get a lot of students who might have been apathetic before to get out to the polls and vote," said UC Berkeley sophomore Dylan Clark, who recently signed up for a mail-in ballot during a voter registration drive. The event took place at Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, a birthplace of student activism.
Students don't want to face "the risk of tuition rising again," said Clark, 19, a political economy major.
Supporters suggest that this bloc of young and often first-time voters — potentially hundreds of thousands of them — could provide the crucial margin for the measure, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
According to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, 55% of registered voters would approve it, with 36% opposed and the rest undecided. Support was strongest — 77% — among voters 19 to 29.
Opponents, however, say they hope students will see through what they allege are Brown's blackmail tactics. Shawn Lewis, a UC Berkeley senior who is vice chairman of the statewide California College Republicans, said the governor is "manipulating students' fear and emotions" to win votes.
Lewis, a 21-year-old political science major, concedes that Proposition 30 has raised election "energy" on campuses but thinks that is misguided since there is no guarantee that universities will see a long-term benefit from the proposed four-year, quarter-cent rise in the state sales tax and seven-year hike in income tax rates for those who make more than $250,000.
If it fails, the UC and Cal State systems each could face $250 million in midyear budget cuts that officials say would lead to substantial fee increases for the winter and spring terms.
At UC, officials predict a 20% tuition hike, or about $2,400 a year. The Cal State system already boosted tuition 9% this fall and projects an additional 5%, or $150 a semester, if the proposition loses. Community colleges fear big drops in class offerings and student enrollment if Proposition 30 fails.
Voter approval would mean that UC would keep its promise not to raise tuition this year and Cal State would refund its 9% hike and forgo any other increase, officials say.
A new study by UC Davis' California Civic Engagement Project shows that nearly half of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds in the state were registered to vote in 2010, compared with 82.1% for the rest of the electorate. That gap is "abysmal," but recent registration drives on campuses might increase young people's participation, said project director Mindy Romero.
Voting rates typically increase as people settle down and become concerned with property taxes and children's schools, said Steve Boilard, executive director of Sacramento State's Center for California Studies. To college students, many electoral issues can seem remote — except for "what is going to happen to your tuition bill."
Many campus voter registration and planned election day events are nonpartisan, and their sponsors, such as the UC Associated Students, the Cal State Student Assn., community college groups and Rock the Vote, do not specifically tell students which way to vote.
However, in describing the expected aftermath of a Proposition 30 defeat, many campus activists leave little doubt where they stand. For example, the Cal State student group website has a prominent link predicting fee hikes and the loss of 5,500 course sections statewide if the measure loses.
Higher education governing boards and school administrators have endorsed the proposition yet say they are following rules that forbid active campaigning for any ballot measure.
But the proposition's opponents contend that educators are illegally using school resources to influence voters. For example, hundreds of thousands of Cal State applicants will receive a warning letter saying that enrollment could shrink if Proposition 30 fails, a message that Cal State says is factual, not political.
On election day, Nov. 6, at UC Irvine, phone banks and emails will encourage voting in general, not advocating any ballot item or candidate, said Amrita Dhinsa, 19, a sophomore biomedical engineering major who is voter registration coordinator for the school's Associated Students. Student government volunteers there have signed up about 700 new voters so far this term toward a goal of 4,000.
Cal State L.A. student government representative Matt Gonzales said many students think there is no reason to vote because California seems a slam-dunk for President Obama. But in urging his peers to cast a ballot, the 27-year-old senior tells them to study Proposition 30 and how its defeat would "directly affect us in a really bad way."