BHS Graduates Get Voting Cards On the Way Out

Friday June 11, 2004

In some towns high school graduates are greeted with a new car or a family barbecue. This year in Berkeley the class of 2004 will stare out on a small army of voter registration volunteers. 

One week after the League of Women voters held a voter registration drive on campus, Friday’s graduation ceremony will include a visit from UC Berkeley’s Mobilizing America’s Youth seeking to register graduates, who—thanks to the work of a devoted team of parents—will find enclosed with their diplomas a voter registration card. Berkeley High students almost missed out on the registration cards, however, due to a foul-up by someone associated with the school. 

Across the state, schools are failing to distribute registration cards as required by the Student Voter Registration Act of 2003, said Nicky Yuen, a Berkeley resident and executive director of Get Out the Student Vote. The act requires the secretary of state to mail registration cards—about 350,000 in total—to every high school, community college and public university in the state. 

The problem, said Yuen, is that the schools weren’t informed that the registration cards were on the way. That was the case at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, where Yuen teaches government. He received a call from a school employee asking him if he wanted the cards before they recycled them. 

“Most schools didn’t know anything about it and their boxes just disappeared,” he said.  

Count Berkeley High in the majority. 

“The cards were delivered here, but they got lost,” said Caren Ohlson, assistant to Principal Jim Slemp. 

Yuen and his group didn’t blame overburdened school administrators for the snafu, but they weren’t going to be denied the chance to offer 18-year-olds a visit to the ballot box. After one member of the group found the missing box at El Cerrito High School, Yuen traveled to Berkeley High Wednesday and scoured the storage and mail rooms in search the cards.  

No luck, but not to worry. Arlene Blum, a Berkeley resident and member of Yuen’s group immediately ordered a new batch from the state. The United Parcel Service was scheduled to deliver the package Friday just hours before the graduation ceremony, but the package arrived Thursday giving parents ample time to stuff them into diploma sleeves. 

“It’s so much work to register voters. Here there are hundreds of thousands of students not registered, it seemed like a great opportunity,” Blum said. 

Ensuring that voter registration cards will accompany every Berkeley students’ diploma is just the start of Get Out the Student Vote’s work this summer, one of the busiest on record for local voter advocacy groups. 

Yuen’s group will team do non-partisan voter education and mobilization as part of a larger coalition with East Bay Votes, an umbrella group of local voter rights organizations. 

Mobilizing America’s Youth (MAY) decided to set up shop at the commencement when they learned Berkeley High had lost their registration cards, said MAY member and UC Berkeley Senior Marlee Furman. Even though the graduates will now get registration cards with their diplomas, MAY still plans to have a table at the commencement to promote the group’s march for health care June 19 in San Francisco. 

The San Francisco event will kick off MAY’s cross country ten-day RV trip, where college activists will attend 15 demonstrations. Furman said the goal of the whirlwind tour was to show young people across the country that politics can be fun and that it really matters. 

In Berkeley, this weekend the NAACP is holding its Medgar Evers Voter Advocacy Summit. The event, honoring the slain civil rights advocate, instructs participants in grass roots political organizing.  

On Sunday participants and members of the public will meet in San Pablo Park to canvas neighborhoods in South and West Berkeley to register voters.