At the corner of 12th and Oak Streets near Lake Merritt, Tamy Mann called out to people passing her tent. Lawyers, clerks and security guards alike avoided eye contact, or muttered something under their breaths and shuffled along. But Mann wasn’t loitering or selling anything; she was trying to get them to exercise a constitutional right.
“Excuse me, have you registered to vote?” Mann said.
Mann and her counterpart, Manjeet Singh, had set up a voter registration booth outside the Rene C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse on a Tuesday. But as employees of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, they knew that it was no ordinary Tuesday: September 27 is National Voter Registration Day.
According to the National Voter Registration Day website, more than 6 million Americans didn’t vote in the 2008 election because they “missed a deadline or didn’t know how” to register. Last Tuesday, hundreds of events were planned across the country in an effort to register voters. Mann and Singh were working in the field—physically standing on the sidewalk in front of the building helping people register, but people can also register online.
According to a report released in July by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, approximately 230,000 Oakland residents are registered to vote, out of a population of around 420,000. This means that only 54 percent of all Oakland residents are eligible to vote in the November election.
But actually being registered to vote doesn’t mean that they will show up on election day. In the 2012 presidential election, roughly 74 percent of registered voters in Alameda County voted.
This year’s election is garnering record-breaking public attention. The first presidential debate aired on the eve of National Voter Registration Day, and delivered the largest-ever TV audience for a presidential debate reaching more than 84 million people, according to the preliminary Nielson ratings. Twitter analysts, who evaluated the data from the debate, declared it the “most tweeted debate ever.” The tweets sent during the 90-minute debate exceeded the 10.3 million that were sent during the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.
Twitter analysts even broke down the data to show which candidate was mentioned more, what topics people were tweeting about and which three quotes from the debate were tweeted most: when Republican nominee Donald J. Trump said he had a good temperament, when Trump commented on stop and frisk, and when Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton discussed their plans for defeating ISIS.
For residents in Oakland and Alameda County, November’s election is about more than who the next president will be. Voters will make decisions on controversial measures such as Measure HH, a soda tax on the city ballot, and Proposition 64, an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana on the state ballot, in addition to electing city councilmembers, school board members, state senators and U.S. senators.
“I think the packet that [Oakland residents] will get this year is about 226 pages, so you need a plan of how you are going vote,” said Louise Rothman-Riemer, president of the League of Women Voters of Oakland. “You have to say, ‘How am I going to think about those 17 state propositions, the 5 or 6 local Oakland measures, and then the county stuff plus all of the candidates?’”
As president of the league, a non-partisan political group that encourages informed and active participation in government, Rothman-Riemer is working double-time to ensure people get registered. For the 2016 election cycle, league members have been attending events, setting up registration tables in public spaces, and training other organizations on how to help people register.
One of the league’s biggest initiatives has been working with local high schools and community colleges to help register newly-eligible 18-year-olds. “We reach out to government teachers and ask to come to their senior-level government classes,” said Sandy Venning, a voter consultant with the League of Women Voters. “We spend one class period talking about why it is important to vote and then, if they decide they want to do it, we help them register.”
This year, the league has taken a special interest in helping register the formerly incarcerated. Under the California constitution, people in prison or on parole cannot vote. But in August, 2015, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced that the state would support voting rights for people on post-release community supervision, which is normally supervised by the county. This allows low-risk offenders, or those released from prison after serving time for non-serious, non-violent offenses, to be supervised by the county probation office or other agencies within the county.
His announcement followed a 2014 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children against former Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Bowen had issued a memorandum in 2011 declaring that felons on community supervision were “functionally equivalent to parole,” meaning they would be treated as if they were on parole and not be allowed to register to vote. In the suit, they claimed that Bowen had unconstitutionally denied tens of thousands of people their right to vote.
Following the suit, which they won, all three groups and the league have been working to help educate and alert the formerly incarcerated of their rights, in addition to helping them understand the ballot and what they will be voting on.
“Because of our involvement with the suit and the importance of the presidential election, we have really been reaching out to the re-entry community,” Rothman-Riemer said. “We feel that if they have broken the law in the past, they are less likely to commit another crime if they are voting and feel like they are part of the community.”
Outside of the courthouse, Mann and Singh had managed to help about 20 people register to vote, but found their success came mostly from people interested in becoming poll workers. They passed out pamphlets and fliers to recruit people to manage the polling sites on Election Day.
Californians can register to vote by attending a voter registration drive or can register online by visiting registertovote.ca.gov. The last day to register to vote is October 26 and the last day to request an absentee ballot is November 1. Absentee ballots are normally mailed in advance of the election by voters who are unable to be present at the polls on Election Day. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters is also offering mail-in voting for voters with busy schedules, which means they will be able to vote prior to the election via mail.
Mann said the league and the Registrar of Voters won’t stop encouraging people to register to vote after National Voter Registration Day has come and gone. “I came from a country where I didn’t have much freedom to vote, so I am so grateful that I am here,” said Mann, referring to her home country of Vietnam. “Each person can speak for their own, for the country.”
“It’s our civic duty,” said Shavoy Bass, a voter who stopped by the booth to double check his registration status. “I’m a patriot and I believe these are some of the things that are required to be patriotic in this country.”