Voting has never been a universal right throughout America’s history, some officials say, and the present is no exception.
Political and community leaders discussed Thursday what can be done to encourage participation despite current forms of voter suppression in Santa Clara County.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla joined Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese, County Executive Jeff Smith and other local lawmakers to hear recommendations on what could be done to address this disparity, especially for youth, racial minorities and those who have been incarcerated.
Padilla discussed recent changes to the state’s efforts to counter voter suppression, including automatic voter registration, the Voter’s Choice Act and moving California’s primary elections to March. As part of that election reform, Santa Clara County next year will ditch traditional precinct voting for “vote centers” all around the county that are open long before Election Day and send every voter a vote-by-mail ballot.
“It’s now easier to register, easier to vote and your vote means even more on the national stage,” Padilla said. “This is such a critical conversation that is very timely. Part of what our democracy represents is free and fair elections, and fundamentally our right to vote and have our voice heard as citizens of this country over the years has fallen short.”
Before delving into solutions Thursday, San Jose State University Political Science Professor Garrick Percival provided a historical perspective on voter suppression.
While rights gradually expanded with the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments, suppression also prevailed through methods like literacy tests and grandfather clauses. Percival said modern day similarities are found in voter ID laws, voter roll purges and felon disenfranchisement laws.
“Investing in organizations and outreach efforts is something where I think the county can really make a big difference,” Percival told San José Spotlight. “(Local election timing) would be something that doesn’t require a lot of resources, but can actually have a substantial impact.”
Percival supports a labor-backed initiative aimed for the 2020 ballot that would move mayoral elections to presidential years in an effort to boost voter turnout, particularly among communities of color.
The first panel Thursday featured Californians for Justice organizing director Rosa de Leon, Superintendent of the Santa Clara County Office of Education Mary Ann Dewan, County Chief Probation Officer Laura Garnette, Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey, and Perla Ni, CEO and co-founder of CommunityConnect Labs and GreatNonprofits.
de Leon said the population of 18 to 24 year olds is more diverse than ever, with 70 percent being black, Latino, API and Native American, and recommended the county partner with public schools and expand the voting age for school board and citywide elections to 16.
Garnette focused on the inequalities for those who are currently or formerly incarcerated. She suggested creating a Youth Advisory Council at the county’s juvenile hall, implementing a civic curriculum and offering voter registration cards at these facilities.
“We need to be equally intentional on learning and growing in places where the less marginalized people are, certainly in the criminal justice system,” Garnette said.
Another panel convened featuring SOMOS Mayfair Associate Director Zelica Rodriguez-Deams, Working Partnerships USA Director of Organizing Jessica Vollmer, attorney Ruth Silver-Taube and Asian Law Alliance Executive Director Richard Konda.
Silver-Taube worries that employers don’t know the California Election Code requires them to provide up to two hours of paid time off if employees do not have sufficient time outside of work to vote. “We need a state and countywide campaign to educate workers about their voting rights in the workplace,” Silver-Taube said.
Konda suggested providing voter registration forms at work to make it easier for workers to exercise their civic duty.
Sunnyvale resident Kennita Watson shared concerns about the transgender community, saying they might be discouraged from voting or experience problems in the voting booth if their identification doesn’t match their current gender identity.
Aidan Reed, 24, said the county needs to focus on the growing and disenfranchised homeless population. The San Jose State University graduate is concerned unhoused individuals are being denied their right to vote.
“Access to voting centers, literature and the mediums needed to actually register to vote are not readily available to a very significant portion of people residing in this area,” Reed said. “What are we doing for people we see every single day that are only rising in number?”
Smith, referencing Percival’s presentation, said he hopes the current frustration with the federal government will lead to change, similar to the expansion of voting rights after the Civil War and Industrial Revolution. “After crises in this nation, we turn to ourselves and find solutions,” Smith said. “Hopefully, after this great challenge, we’ll all come together again and value our right to vote.”
Cortese said Thursday he wants the importance of voting to be taught to citizens as young as the second grade.
“We need to make this a big deal with kids, just like we’ve done with tobacco, vaping and climate change,” the supervisor said. “Whatever we decide for next steps, I hope we can shift our paradigm on who we focus on as a county, as opposed to just getting 17 and 18 year olds registered to vote.”