OPINION: California recall election shows that voting in college doesn’t have to be a hassle

A hand holds up ballots under the blue sky.
Madison Lewis PO ’23 writes that the easy mail-in voting process for the California recall election enabled high voter turnout. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

It’s 95 degrees in the middle of the day in the Inland Empire; I am hot, sweaty and thirsty. And yet, this is the easiest Get Out the Vote canvassing I’ve ever done. 

As a political organizer, I was galvanized to take action and volunteer for the recent campaign against the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif. The canvassing conditions on that hot Saturday, two weeks before the election, should have made the experience miserable. But I was breezing through the list of households: Everyone had their ballot, and all they needed to do was find a convenient time to fill it out and then drop it off or send it in. In this primarily working-class Hispanic neighborhood, voting was not an unattainable logistical nightmare, but instead an easy and accessible task.

The leadup to the Sept. 14 recall election was marked by near-frenzied fear from many liberal Californians and news outlets that, through a lack of voter engagement and civic participation, the unthinkable would happen and right-wing talk show host Larry Elder would become governor of California. 

In California, where registered Democratic voters outnumber their Republican counterparts nearly two to one, the recall election was always a question of whether voters would turn out in an off-cycle, off-month, largely single-issue election. Newsom, who ultimately got to keep his job, must be thankful for the unexpectedly high voter turnout that secured an over 60 percent “no” vote on the recall effort. 

While some may attribute high turnout to a massive Democratic mobilization effort and effective messaging, ultimately, it was the over nine million mail-in ballots that allowed major news outlets to call the election in Newsom’s favor barely an hour after polls closed. In the big picture, this election has implications beyond Newsom and his political career; it provides invaluable insight into generating local civic engagement. High voter turnout is critical to a healthy and responsive democracy, but voter turnout in the United States is lower than that of most established democracies

It is imperative that we take note of the protocols that facilitated relatively robust turnout for a local, off-cycle election. Especially right now, when recent legislation in at least 14 states aims to restrict voting access, including limiting mail-in voting, it is critical we protect our most fundamental democratic right and expand the practices that we have seen make it more accessible. 

On Aug. 16, county elections offices mailed ballots to every single active registered California voter that they could deposit in a drop box or mail back with pre-paid postage anytime before Sept. 14. Such extensive mail-in voting practices in California were first implemented for the 2020 presidential election out of COVID-19 pandemic concerns, but popular support for the ease of voting they offer has prompted legislators to draft a bill expanding the practice

Expanded early and mail-in voting makes engaging with the democratic system easier for all Californians, but it is especially empowering to students and working people who would otherwise have greater difficulty voting in person, on a specific Tuesday, during working hours. As a college student, it is infinitely easier to receive your ballot in the mail and mail it back at the library than try to somehow find a ride to a polling place during the middle of a school day. 

While many 5C students might be among those with the most to gain from expanded mail-in and early voting, we also stand to lose when it is restricted. In reaction to historic turnout in 2020, especially among young voters and historically marginalized communities, many Republican-led legislatures in states such as Iowa and Georgia have aimed to restrict by-mail and early voting. 

Young and minority voters are crucial voices in our democracy that are too often silenced. Voting restrictions anywhere mean a less democratic society everywhere. 

The recent California gubernatorial recall election has shown us that expanded early voting by mail works; it facilitates high turnout for elections that people may not have been motivated to clear voting hurdles for. Voting is a critical democratic right that, as many students know all too well, can be a logistical nightmare. 

We must advocate for the process we’ve seen work right here in our own community, so that exercising our right to vote doesn’t have to be a struggle — especially when we know it can be as easy as a walk to the library.

Madison Lewis PO ’23 is from Palo Alto, California. She is a former field organizer for the Colorado Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Georgia. 


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