by Patrick Todd, former Editor-in-Chief of The California Review
NOTE: updates have been appended to this post.
SOVAC, the Student Organized Voter Access Committee, is a non-partisan UCSD organization founded by UCSD student Arshya Sharifian that is controlled by Associated Students. The organization was founded to increase campus voter registration. SOVAC has received much praise in recent weeks for registering over 2000 students to vote in the first week of school. While efforts to increase the ranks of registered voters can be lauded, SOVAC has been doing so through efforts that violate state and federal election laws and are currently under investigation by the San Diego Registrar of Voters.
SOVAC was created in 2011 as SOPAC, Student Organized Public Affairs Committee as the voter registration arm of A.S. In order to increase funding opportunities, A.S. transformed the organization into SOVAC in 2012. This move allowed them to obtain a larger amount of money from the Associated Student budget with less transparency. During this school year SOVAC has obtained $3100 from the AS budget (not including the money required to support their events.) SOVAC has hosted major events such as a San Diego mayoral debate and has held presidential debate watching parties with free pizza. Records cannot be located regarding the cost of these event nor their final events leading up to the election.
In order to obtain extra money, SOVAC convinced the AS board that UCSD has the lowest percentage of registered students of any UC school and that major efforts would be required for UCSD to compete UCSB’s voter registration success. As part of this effort SOVAC has provided students various incentives to register to vote. One of these incentives came in the form of $1400 spent on wristbands with the word “VOTE” inscribed in 13 languages. This wristband entitles students to discounts at UCSD restaurants such as Santorini Greek Island Grill. Students received the wristbands in exchange for registering to vote. These wristbands were also supposed to be a visual reminder to other students to vote in the November 2012 general election. SOVAC is using $800 of AS money to also sponsor a contest for the college that register the most voters to receive 2000 cookies from the Secret Cookie Service.
While the wristbands and cookies may seem like an inconsequential incentive, they are in direct conflict with the laws described in California’s guidelines to Voter Registration booklet. According to the booklet “Any type of incentive is considered “payment,” even things as seemingly innocent as cookies or admission to an entertainment event and “Violations are punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.” In addition to this, SOVAC has participated in other questionable actions. Every completed voter registration form was scanned and stored on a hard drive in the Associated Students office. While not necessarily illegal, it is quite disconcerting that the Associated Students has private information from about 3000 students stored on a hard drive which many students have access to. This private information includes partial social security numbers, CA identification numbers, phone numbers, birthdates, mailing addresses, as well as signatures. SOVAC has released no plans to safely discard this information.
The events by SOVAC illustrate that Associated Students lack any oversight. SOVAC has been given unprecedented access to UCSD. They were allowed to “storm the dorms” and table inside Geisel library; such behavior would be completely unacceptable and bounds for dismissal for any other student organization including UCSD College Republicans and UCSD College Democrats, who routinely register students to vote. Also for an organization that supposedly has budget problems it is nonsensical that Associated Students has paid well over $3100 of UCSD students’ money to accomplish a task that many student organizations do for free. In addition, SOVAC could have accomplished Voter Registration drives for free however Associated Students funded every single one of SOVAC’s requests with one notable exception: an ipad. What SOVAC would have done with an ipad is unclear.
While registering voters is a worthy cause, Associated Students has proven that it cannot do so in a legal manner. Not only have the SOVAC board subjected themselves to penalties and jail time, they have also potentially created significant legal problems for the school. While it is unlikely, it is possible for the students who registered via SOVAC to have their registrations thrown out by a judge. If this is the case, SOVAC will have successfully blighted the people whom they are trying to represent.
Update: November 6, 2012, 1:18 pm
The article’s author has provided the following sources to substantiate his claims.
In regards to the actual law: See Subsection (c)
In regards to defining incentives: Page 11