People fill voting booths at City Hall during a recent election. (File photo)

CITYWIDE — “Santa Monica has a very engaged community …”

It’s a phrase that’s been used often — sometimes apologetically — in Santa Monica, usually by city and school district officials as they introduce new administrators to their positions.

Santa Monicans are undeniably active. Almost 160 of them volunteer for time-consuming, unpaid positions on boards, commissions and advisory councils throughout the city, according to City Hall’s Sustainable City Report Card, which was released last week.

That won City Hall an A- for civic engagement on the report card, the highest grade achieved in 2012.

Santa Monicans may show up to meetings, but another tangible indicator of their passion for democracy and policy is their voting record.

Voter turnout in the city is shockingly high. According to the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office, 65 percent of eligible local voters turned out for the November 2010 election.

That trumped City Hall’s goal of 50 percent and surpassed Los Angeles County stats by 10 percent.

Typically, years in which voters can cast a ballot for the next president see significantly higher turnout. That was certainly true in Santa Monica, where 87 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls.

They tend to fit the profile of a “likely voter” as defined by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research firm focused on social, economic and political issues.

According to PPIC, likely voters tend to be more affluent, older and educated (81 percent have a college degree). They’re often homeowners and born in the United States.

The only place the Santa Monica population bucks those trends are in homeownership — roughly 71 percent of Santa Monicans rent.

“We don’t usually worry about Santa Monica,” said Lawrence Joe.

Joe is the project director for the California Participation Project, an organization that works with nonprofits to increase voter participation.

The California Participation Project targets the “unlikely” voter, people who are not yet registered to vote or otherwise engaged in the public process.

Otherwise, they often go ignored.

“Get out the vote” drives target registered voters, the same groups that get hit up by political pollsters and campaigns because they’ve already demonstrated a willingness to invest their time and energy in the election.

The project does so by working with nonprofit organizations to make voter registration resources available to their clients and lead classes to educate groups on issues that may influence their lives.

Some people believe that in California, a perennially Democratic state, it’s pointless to cast a ballot during a presidential election, Joe said, while others mistakenly think that by registering to vote they’ll put themselves on a list for jury duty.

“If you’re driving a car, it’s too late,” Joe said. Jury duty lists are derived from a number of sources, including records from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Traditionally, people can pick up voting registration packets in libraries, post offices and the much-maligned DMV, but fewer and fewer people actually go to those three locations that used to be more of a lifeline.

That’s why the California Participation Project works with nonprofits, to catch up with people trying to access anything from music lessons to health care.

The organization is hoping that by engaging people during the presidential election, they’ll be able to push forward into elections with traditionally lower participation, like the municipal elections in early 2013.

“We’re keeping up the momentum by connecting the other issues to their quality of life and livelihood,” he said. “Hopefully that will help maintain kind of a new ethic around civic participation, even around election years.”

The project conducted one such training in 2010 for the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition, a homeless services provider that works with groups in Santa Monica, as well as the Venice Community Housing Corporation.

Those organizations can include populations of potential voters that no one considers, like the homeless.

Nonprofits and community organizers often work with service provider OPCC to register homeless individuals to vote, said John Maceri, executive director at OPCC.

Although they don’t have an address of their own, they’re allowed to use the location of a residential program — if they’re enrolled in one — or even the OPCC Access Center on Olympic Boulevard.

“For those who want to, they do see it as important,” Maceri said. “When people lose their housing, it’s one of the things they don’t think about. It’s about being a citizen, it’s something important to them.”

An organization has already reached out to OPCC to do a voter drive this year, but the details are not yet final, Maceri said.

Other Santa Monica-based organizations that have skin in the game this election season are putting on a full-court press to encourage voter registration and turnout on Nov. 6.

Santa Monica College has already held one voter registration drive which netted 608 eligible voters, and they’re already planning another one for Oct. 15, said Brenda Benson, dean of Counseling and Retention.

Although the college sees it as part of its ongoing mission to educate students about voting, this year has been particularly energetic, Benson said.

“There’s probably a little extra fire,” Benson said. “We’ve got a lot at stake in this election.”

Voters will have the opportunity to vote for Proposition 30, an education funding measure put on the ballot by Gov. Jerry Brown that — if passed — would prevent massive cuts to the higher education system.

It’s a major difference between it and Proposition 38, another ballot measure that purports to fund education, but would only support K-12, Benson said.

“This college won’t look the same if this proposition doesn’t pass,” Benson said. “Higher education in California won’t look the same.”

The first step is to educate students, many of whom are first-time voters, about the registration and voting process.

“For those of us who’ve been doing it awhile, it’s like driving a car or riding a bike,” Benson said. “Before you’ve done it, it can be intimidating …  . We’re trying to make it really simple and not intimidating.”

Brown recently enacted legislation to make it even easier for California voters to participate in the public process, including a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) to allow same-day voter registration. But that may not be available until 2015, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Voters can always register online by going to www.lavote.net. The deadline to register for the November election is Oct. 22.

 

 

 

ashley@smdp.com