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How UC San Diego gets college students to register to vote

February 15, 2012 1:13 p.m.

Guests: Arshya Shafarian and Dean Searcy

UC San Diego students and founders of SOVAC

Related Story: Students Registering Students To Vote At UC San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Every election season there's an effort to get young voters excited to go out to vote. Politicians make YouTube videos, rock stars make embarrassing commercials to inspire young people to go out. Sometimes young voters need more than inspiration. Two UC San Diego students have introduced some practical changes on campus to turn students into voters. My guests, Arshya Shafarian, did I say that correctly?

SHAFARIAN: That's correct, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And Dean Searcy, founders of Student Organized Voter Access Committee (SOVAC), which was chartered by the UCSD Associated Students to be its institutional voter registration arm. Let me start with you, Dean. Do many freshmen arrive on campus without having registered to vote?

SEARCY: It's actually surprising, yes. Since most freshmen are currently 17 or just turning 18 it's really their first contact with voter registration that they have. When they first come to our campus. So that tender age between 17 to 18 is really when it's necessary to target the students to make them first-time voters. It's proven that first- time voters become lifetime voters.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Arshya, when you looked at the campus, let's say before SOVAC started, what problem did you see in regards to students registering to vote?

SHAFARIAN: Absolutely. So one of the biggest issues that we saw on our campus that when -- every time you move, you have to register to vote. And unfortunately, many students don't know of that. So for example a lot of students are registered to vote in Sacramento or in Los Angeles, and they move down to San Diego, and they forget that they need to reregister to vote in order to participate in the next election. Also, even when students are registered to vote on campus and they move from one part of the campus to another part of the campus, they're still required by law to reregister to vote for the next election. So unfortunately, a lot of students don't know this. And that's what results in our percentage -- at UC San Diego, only 6% of students are registered to vote. So seeing that fact, that statistic, we felt very strongly that if students ever wanted to go out and advocate on behalf of issues that they cared very deeply about, that is very difficult to do so when they don't participate or don't have the information to participate in our democratic process.

CAVANAUGH: Before SOVAC, Dean, how were people -- how was the school or how were various aspects of the student organization on campus trying to get kids to sign up to vote?

SEARCY: Before the existence of SOVAC, voter registration on the campus primary occurred through associated students, and it was mostly on election year, primarily in presidential years.

SHAFARIAN: Exactly. And so what we want to do is insure that public officials knew that voters, student voters are consistent. That year in, year out, we register to vote, and we turn out to vote. When we saw that on presidential elections where associated students and other organizations were focusing their effort, we felt that that once again contributes to that notion of inconsistency and volatility within the student vote.


SEARCY: So like I was saying, before associated students relied on pacts of voting registration drives. But SOVAC is a very consistent organization that always has a presence on campus, that is it always there to register students to vote.

CAVANAUGH: If you're an incoming freshman, how do you encounter SOVAC?

SEARCY: The primary form of contact that we have is through the move-in weekend event, this is the three days that freshmen move into their residence hall dorm stores. During the move-in weekend this year in particular, we had a presence on all six college campuses on the village. So everyone coming in passes through us, knows of the existence of SOVAC and has the ability to register to vote right there.

CAVANAUGH: And Arshya, what kind of response did you get when you did that in the fall?

SHAFARIAN: It was phenomenal. We saw students that saw our cable, and the information we were providing about voter registration were absolutely excited to register to vote and participate in at this time democratic progress. So the campuses where we were integrated into the process itself, so table one was give me your name, your ID number, table 2 is here's some information about voter registration. Table 3 was here are your keys, your pact, move your things upstairs. So when we saw students at table 2, we provided them the information, and they were absolutely ecstatic to have an organization there to provide them the information that, hey, I never knew that I need to register every time I move. So that 1†piece of information really changed the way that students view voter registration. And it really changed the way we now approach voter registration on our campus.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of other information to SOVAC give out to students besides signing up to register to vote?

SHAFARIAN: Great question. What we've done, there's a few laws that we consider to be very important that students should consider. The first is that every time you fill out a voter registration form, you're required to turn it in three days after the date signed. So that 1 piece really hurts students because they keep it for a long time and forget to turn it in. Another law is the 15-day law. You have to register to vote 15 days prior to an election. When we talk about voter registration, we really emphasize those key pieces of law. And at the same time, Dean and the rest of SOVAC, what we're trying to do as well, we're trying to have polling sites on all of our campuses. And over the years, associated students has had polling sites mixed across the campus, but this year, we're trying to have a polling site on each one of our six colleges as well as the main residential hall located at the north of campus for transfers.

CAVANAUGH: This isn't just where people are going to take poll results. You mean places where people can actually go and vote.

SHAFARIAN: Exactly. The location needs to be a place familiar to the students. And we have a very large campus. So if students are not familiar with the location, it's much more difficult to get them to get out and vote. So we decided that it's best for us to communicate with college councils, to communicate with student government and administration to pick a location that is convenient for the student to insure a large turnout.

CAVANAUGH: Dean, I have to actually admit my ignorance here because I don't really know how this works either. If you're coming to UC San Diego and your residence, your parents' residence, say you've always lived in the bay area, and you want to participate in the local elections like who gets to be mayor in your town and so forth, you have to register up there and do a mail-in ballot? Is that how that works?

SEARCY: Are you asking if you'd like to participate in the local San Diego elections?

CAVANAUGH: No, the local bay area elections, if you're from out of town, out of San Diego, I'm just thinking about kids who come in from other areas of California and they want to register to vote, but do they have to register in their home town in order to vote in the home town elections?

SEARCY: Yes, they would have to stay registered in their home town to participate in the home town elections and to vote on those regional issues. But there's also the ability to register -- to have an absentee ballot mailed to you while you're in San Diego. So they can receive the absentee ballot, fill it out, and it will go back to the registrar in the area that they're registered.

CAVANAUGH: And I want imagine the same thing has to do with out of state students. They can register here and vote in San Diego, or they can register before they get here and have a mail-in ballot.

SHAFARIAN: Exactly. It's the same thing. If they're registered to vote in Minnesota, they can reregister with us, and then they would just fill in for the mailing address, they would put in the San Diego address. That way the ballot from Minnesota would come to the San Diego address, and they would be able to vote in the local election.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how are these registrations breaking down in terms of party affiliation? A lot of people kind of feel young people would be maybe more predisposed to vote democratic, let's say. Whoever wants to take this.

SEARCY: I'll take this question. Overwhelming, what we've seen is that students tend to register independent. And the No. 1 problem obviously, if you look at the voter registration form, there's actually a place where you check incline to state a party, but there's also the American independent party. That's one of the mistakes students often make. Most students tend to register with independents, and being at UC San Diego, we have a good number of Democrats. But the people who register more often than not seem to be Republican. It seems to be the people who are affiliated with the Republican party are strongly affiliated, so they tend to pick that choice.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Let's broaden this conversation out just a little bit. Give me your take on what students are interested in politically.

SHAFARIAN: Oh, man. I think the main issue that we're seeing right now on our campus is the tuition fight.

SEARCY: Oh, yeah.

SHAFARIAN: Every year, if you look at the charts, you'll see year in, year out, tuition is always going up. And I know there's actually a bill being introduced by Perez that's excited a lot of students on our campus.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the bill being introduced by assemblyman Perez.

SHAFARIAN: I'll be honest, I'm not sure of the details of that bill. But my understanding is that it would lower tuition to about $4,000-$5,000 per student. And it's advocating for an increase, I think an increase in taxes for those who make a certain amount of money a year. So that -- students have always been fighting for tuition decreases, and I think Perez's bill provides some excitement over that possibility.

SEARCY: I believe that the Perez bill specifically targets the middle class, which is a group of people that typically hasn't been targeted in the past for financial aid. So that's hoping to reduce the fees for that democratic.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I pulled some statistics when you knew you guys were coming in, about the youth vote in it elections, presidential elections from 1992-2008. And it was about 52% in 1992, it was about 52% in 2008. And in that 20 year -- well, yeah, almost 20 year spread. It sank.

SHAFARIAN: Right, right.

CAVANAUGH: You see this sort of hammock effect on the graphic. Why is that?

SHAFARIAN: I think there's a lot of factors that point to that. But we're really lucky to be working with organizations like Common Cause. And they're pushing for something called the same-day voter registration bill. This would allow students to register to vote on the same day. What we're seeing now is that the increase in tuition, what that means is that students have to be, you know, working part-time jobs, they need to be taking full time classes, so this lowers the ability for the student to go out and attain the information and remain politically active. And so I think what we're seeing is that dip in participation, because we're seeing an increase in tuition, and the increase in financial pressure on student, as a result they have to go out, and I think Dean has --

SEARCY: Yeah, I believe just to answer your question directly, Maureen, I believe the political science literature is in complete consensus that it's disillusionment with the process. It's the belief that student, they look at the process and they believe their vote really doesn't matter.

CAVANAUGH: Even after two thousand?

SEARCY: Exactly. It's understandable, this disillusionment with government, and obviously SOVAC, with the help of California common cause, and all these other organizations across the UC campus, including slug vote, with one of our affiliates, Barry Jacob, we are trying to increase that registration number, turn that slump around, and bring students back as a viable demographic for the voting population.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of criticism has been leveled against the occupy movement because it's not focused. And it's not specifically political. But I'm wondering if any of this intense sort of media interest in this mostly youth-motivated movement of occupy, do you think it's influence think political discussions with your friends or at campus? Or at least getting people interested in perhaps participating more?

SHAFARIAN: I consider the occupy movement to be very, very important that really describes the divide between the rich and the poor, and the assistant attack on the middle class. I think the occupy movement would be exponentially more effective in changing legislation if more people were to participate directly into the process. And I think that for the most part, the occupy movement has stayed away from that component. They've stayed away from advocating on behalf of candidates, and really pushing for voter registration and stuff like that. And in fact Dean and I were actually at the occupy San Diego movement. And maybe Dean wants to talk about the occupy San Diego movement when we were there.

SEARCY: SOVAC had attended, I believe it was the first night of the occupy San Diego movement. And we actually went there, like we had said earlier, a little aside. SOVAC is really trying to change the discourse on political involvement from just protesting to more direct political involvement flew voter registration and voting. SOVAC saw this opportunity in occupy San Diego to go bring voter registration forms to poem who are doing drum circles and giving them the opportunity to exercise their voice in an institutionalized form.

CAVANAUGH: Dean, final question to you. Is this the model of SOVAC being taken up by other campuses across California?

SEARCY: There are other campuses across California that are pursuing the same things that we are. As far as the memorandums of understanding with residential life and libraries, in particular the one that's been the most successful is on the UC Santa Cruz campus with slug vote, our affiliate. Barry Jacob. At Berkeley, I believe they successfully implemented the MOU, but they haven't push today to the extent that we have. So the huge disparity between how we've been performing as a student-run, organized voter access committee and other campuses across California is that we have extremely dedicated students. And under the leadership of Arshya, he's a fantastic speaker, he brings in so many people. Of and the key is to find those people on those campuses. And we believe that when those people are found and they step up, the student voter registration in California is going to shoot through the roof.

SHAFARIAN: And I think the last thing we want to point to is that when we saw this project, when we saw 6% of UCSD students registered to vote, that was last among UCs. Now we're second among UCs in voter registration. So we hope to continue our efforts and continue to spread the message about this methodology and really inspire other students on other campuses to register their students.

CAVANAUGH: Arshya Shafarian, Dean Searcy of SOVAC, thank you so much for speaking with me.

SHAFARIAN: Thank you.

SEARCY: Thank you for having us, Maureen.