Registering new voters on college campuses requires some strategy. On our drives to UC Irvine, Santa Ana College, Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton Community College, among others, my fellow volunteers and I — mostly women, post career — pick each others’ brains. Our group, Swing Socal Left, has registered more than 4,000 new Democrat and Independent voters since the June 5 primary, in the hope that the midterm will flip the House and restore checks and balances to our government.
The first lesson in attracting new voters: Be lucky in your choice of location, and relentless. We coordinate and get our marching orders from Jason Berlin and Michael Tonetti, amazing regional field organizers for the California Democratic Party. We’ve been ejected from some public spaces for “soliciting,” but registering voters isn’t supposed to be prohibited. Courthouses offer high population, but the prospective registrants are distracted, upset. College quads are a high-traffic alternative. We’ve learned that Fridays are not good days on campuses, and that tables aren’t effective — it’s better to roam and approach people.
No matter the location, you are going to run into those who can be persuaded and those who can’t. It’s shocking how many students who could vote aren’t registered, and it’s disheartening how many don’t seem to care.
“No thanks, I’m good,” they tell me. I want to say no one is good when they’re not voting, but I restrain myself. After a brushoff, there’s a fine line between starting a conversation and saying something that ends one. The real trick is saying just enough to engage them: “You may be good but your country won’t be if you don’t speak out.”
Sometimes we volunteers wear T-shirts or buttons that advertise our politics, the better to attract and register potential Democrats. We like attention-grabbing opening lines “Do you want to change the world in 30 seconds?” Saying the registration application takes two minutes conveys “too much time.” One minute sounds better, 60 seconds works best. But it’s not true.
One volunteer told a student it would take just 30 seconds, so the young lady decided to time it. In 30 seconds, they were still filling in the blanks, but the timer laughed and kept going.
I once approached a young woman who was on a college tour with her mom. I asked if she was registered to vote in the November election. Her mother replied for her, “Well actually, I don’t think that either party is any good.” I was speechless. It wouldn’t be the last time I was met with such injurious apathy.
I finally worked out a rejoinder: If your house is on fire, and the fire department arrives, would you tell them you didn’t like the equipment they were using and to come back when they had something better? No, you’d let them use their imperfect fire hoses. Well, the United States is on fire and the only way to put it out is to vote. The system isn’t perfect, the parties are far from perfect, and years of non-participation are what got us where we are today.
A lot of young people say “I’m not into politics” or “My vote doesn’t count.” I remind them that recent elections have been won or lost by very thin margins. I remind them that not voting may actually be a vote for the other side of whatever they may be into. One young man told me he admired my passion. I hope it sticks with him and sends him to the polls on Nov. 6.
This is what makes my volunteering worthwhile: Many thank me for reminding them about the election. A few have taken seriously my lectures about how it is their responsibility to vote because a government that does reprehensible things is representing you whether you like it or not. Those conversations are so important.
Today is the deadline for registering to vote. Do it online at www.iwillvote.org or the county registrar’s website. You can also print out a registration form or pick one up at most government buildings and public libraries, fill it in and take it to the post office in time to get it postmarked today. And if you miss today’s deadline, you can still register and vote conditionally (the county will verify your registration information before your vote counts) at the county elections office. In L.A., that’s at 12400 Imperial Highway, Norwalk.
In our democracy, voting is the most powerful way to make change.
Iris Schneider, a former Times staff photographer, will spend Monday registering voters in Santa Clarita.