The pathway along Ring Mall offers students plenty of distractions: Korean barbecue stands, hip-hop dancers and blood donation drives, to name a few. Jesse Cheng is out there, too, doing whatever it takes to make people stop, pick up a pen and register to vote.
As a leader of the Asian Pacific Student Association, Cheng hopes to register 600 new voters by the Oct. 20 deadline. He plunges into the back-to-school crowd with voter registration materials in hand and chats one-on-one with more reticent students. Cheng’s pitch is well-honed from many visits to lecture halls and club meetings.
He and other campus leaders believe students have a big stake in electoral politics, and if they register, show up at the polls and vote on Election Day, candidates will have no choice but to listen to their issues.
“We want UCI students to be a voting force in Orange County,” Cheng said. A third-year Asian American studies major, he has registered 100 new voters in three days and says his goal is “reasonable for an organization of our size.”
His efforts are not limited to Asian American students. “As UCI students,” he said, “we are all in this together.”
Statistics stand in Cheng’s way. Asian Americans have the lowest voter registration rates of any minority youth group, according to the nonprofit Asian Pacific Islander American Vote. And overall, young people are notorious for avoiding the polls on Election Day.
Christina Jung, a fourth-year English major, is bucking that trend thanks to some nudging by Cheng. She registered because she worries about the economy and the availability of education funding. Jung, a member of hip-hop dance group, registered with a group of fellow dancers.
“I’m not sure we all share the same political ideas, but we want to do something about what’s going on in the country,” she said.
Cheng says he has signed up Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Greens. Voting pamphlets in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese are available to students who want to spread the word to family and friends.
Freshman sociology major Jovanna Nolazco will be a first-time voter Nov. 4 and is sending text messages to her friends and dorm mates to encourage them to register.
“This election is historic, and I want to be a part of it,” she said. “I want to do the whole thing – stand in line, get a sticker. I don’t care how long it takes.”
Young people’s excitement about the historic nature of this election bodes well for Cheng, who remained confident as he stood on Ring Mall on a sweltering Thursday afternoon.
“There’s a lot going on out here, people are just rushing to classes. But sometimes they give you this guilty look, like they know they should register,” he said. “I find those students always come back.”