College Students Bet On Pupusas And Raunchy Rap To Turn Out Voters

Leslie Aguirre, center, attends a voting engagement meeting at California State University, Northridge. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

At some California college campuses this year you can see, hear, and taste the political engagement energy.

"Free pupusas," said Cal State Northridge student Leslie Aguirre, chair of legislative affairs for Associated Students. That's the reward she included in a four-hour voter education event she organized on campus last week called "Politics isn't a bad word."

There's a lot of voter related activity on California campuses this year. There are official voting centers at dozens of colleges, while student associations are getting creative in the way they're bringing the voter engagement message to students.

Aguirre, who stepped down from Associated Students February 14, had already organized a student question and answer session with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla at CSUN in January.

Students Alex Tecson (left) and Kiara Cho received tote bags at a California State University, Northridge voter engagement event on February 18, 2020. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

For the CSUN event last week there were half a dozen tables placed next to the popular Tuesday farmers' market on campus. As a DJ played music, the L.A. County Registrar of Voters registered voters and gave a hands-on demonstration of the new voting machine.

At another station, students could use colored markers to write on large sheets of paper with prompts like "what are the most important qualities in a political leader?" Aguirre also invited the art department to airbrush tote bags with voting messages chosen by students.

Elsewhere students put on Uncle Sam hats and got their pictures taken in a photobooth. Those who stopped by each station got a coupon for their two free pupusas.

Students expressed their views at the CSU Northridge event called "Politics Isn't a Bad Word." (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)


STUDENTS FEEL DISENFRANCHISED

The goal is to turn around low voter turnout among voters age 18-24, although turnout among that demographic has been rising in recent years in California.

"Students feel disenfranchised by the political system," Aguirre said. "They either feel like it doesn't work for them, or that their ability to impact the system is not likely. And so that's something that I would like to change by showing that voting is a little bit more accessible to them."

Aguirre's strategy seemed to work.

"I learned the importance of voting, and don't be afraid to [vote]" said business major John Tongilava as he tested out the new touch screen voting machine.

CSUN business major John Tongilava attends the "Politics Isn't a Bad Word" voter outreach event. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

He was going through the stations with his friend Sony Mailei, a graduate student.

"I don't really pay attention to the politics. A lot of times you see voter turnout not high among people our age. We want to bring up awareness," Mailei said. "People nowadays have short attention spans."

With his reward in sight, Maillei apologetically excused himself from chatting.

"We need two more booths so we gotta go. We gotta get two more booths so we get our bonus, our pupusa," Mailei said as the two walked away.

The library at California State University, Northridge hosts a ballot drop-off box. (Andrew Cullen for LAist) (Andrew Cullen/Andrew Cullen)

VOTECHELLA

CSUN isn't the only campus trying new strategies to engage the youth vote.

In February, U.C. Berkeley organized a concert with the dual purpose of entertainment and voter outreach. Its Associated Students organization called it Votechella, aiming at the sweet spot between music that appeals to college students and voter registration.

"We just had a concert with Waka Flocka Flame. A couple hundred students came and we were able to reach out to them to register them," said Varsha Sarveshwar, president of the U.C. Student Association and a student at U.C. Berkeley.

Singer Waka Flocka Flame performs at a voter registration concert organized by U.C. Berkeley students. (Courtesy Srija Manchkanti/Associated Students of the University of California)

Yes, the same Waka Flocka Flame who ran for president in 2016 to legalize marijuana.

Two years ago the student association tried to get students energized about the midterm elections with an event called Voteside. The headliner was CupcaKKe, a singer who raps about LGBTQ issues, and whose lyrics need a lot of bleeping for airplay.

The promotional poster for the most recent concert shows Waka Flocka Flame giving a double middle finger. Perhaps a milestone for a voter registration concert.

"We're always into finding new and interesting ways to get students to be involved," said Sarshewar about both concerts.

Leslie Aguirre, left, at her office at Associated Students, CSUN. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

VOTING MUSCLE MEMORY

Innovation is what's needed to educate young voters, said Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters of California.

"Researching the candidates and looking at the ballot propositions and doing all that stuff takes time and practice and a little encouragement," she said.

"It's like building muscle memory to say "yeah, here's an election and I'm going to participate," Moon Goldberg said.