Voting sign

Through Election Day on Tuesday, voters can drop off their ballots on the University Park and Health Sciences campuses. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)


Q&A: Why USC hosts two voting centers

Registered voters can drop off their completed ballots at voting centers on the University Park and Health Sciences campuses. Why does USC have these centers? The executive director of USC Dornsife’s Center for the Political Future explains.

March 04, 2024 By Emily Gersema

The mobile voting centers at USC’s University Park and Health Sciences campuses are part of a broad university effort to support voting that also involves the advocacy of the Center for the Political Future at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, as well as the support of University Relations.

USC Votes primary logo 2024
Your vote matters! The California Primary is Tuesday, March 5. For information about the USC Village Vote Center, the Mobile Vote Center on the Heath Sciences Campus and on-campus Vote by Mail Boxes, visit the USC Votes website.

Kambiz “Kamy” Akhavan has been the executive director of the Center for the Political Future since 2018, and he has been a key advocate for the mobile voting centers since his arrival. He recently sat down with Emily Gersema, executive director of USC Media Relations, to discuss the trends in USC student voting, as well as to share his own personal story that propels his advocacy for democracy and the act of voting

Do you know how many years we’ve been hosting these ballot boxes at USC campuses?

Akhavan: The ballot boxes are new. They appeared in 2022 for the first time, and this will be the first presidential election that we’re hosting the ballot boxes. They exist not only at the [University Park Campus], but they’re also at the [Health Sciences Campus].

Are we seeing increased interest from students to actually bring their ballots here, or at least maybe vote from their home base and bring it here to campus and drop it off?

I can tell you the stats for interest in voting in general. Looking at midterm years, the percentage of students who voted in 2014 was 17%. In 2018, the first time that students could respond to the Trump presidency, … despite what many thought would be a red tsunami and Democrats getting crushed in the election, that did not happen. And we then had 45% of students voting in that election — so more than double where they were in the prior midterm. And that was not just at USC, but all across the nation, young people, Gen Z, showed up in disproportionately high numbers to make a big impact in these races.

We did see that trend here at USC. Gen Z, in general, has had around 20% voting for the eligible voters, and in 2018, they went up to 26%. You may look at 6 percentage points and think, “It’s not that big of a deal,” but it was a big enough deal to where it prevented what the conventional thinking was for that presidential race at the time, for the congressional races then, from not happening.

Ballot box at USC Village
The ballot box stands near the Target at USC Village. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

We know from this that Gen Z has tremendous power. And they’re also very, say, jaded about the political process in America, how we’re not really living up to the promise of our nation. They’re very concerned about issues like climate change and gun violence and social justice issues that they don’t see a lot of progress on.

So, for Gen Z, they’re not as motivated by the politics of it as they are by the issue focus of it. Issues have really got them fired up because we have not seen any meaningful change on stemming gun violence for decades. We haven’t seen any meaningful efforts to curb climate change in so long. And so that’s what gets them fired up.

We just want to connect to the issues, to the vote, the accessibility of voting and say, “If you perceive a problem, then you know what the solution can be. It’s voting. And we at USC want to make that process as easy for you as possible and increase your awareness of where to vote, how to vote. When you go into the ballot box, we don’t care who you vote for, or what you vote for, just become civically engaged.”

We also know that the earlier a person is in their life when they first vote, the more likely they are to continue voting for the rest of their lives.

That’s why many states, including California, now have these pre-registration efforts. When you sign up to get your driver’s license, you can also be registered to become a voter. If you signed up to get your driver’s license at age 16, when you’re 18, it’s already a done deal and you are a registered voter. So, that’s just another form of encouragement. What we’ve been trying to do — and what we have done — is create a link to the “Vote SC” website. We put that in the orientation app for incoming transfer students and for incoming freshmen.

What else have you done to connect with young voters who are students?

Kambiz Akhavan
Kambiz Akhavan has been the executive director of the Center for the Political Future since 2018. (Pnoto/Courtesy of Kambiz Akhavan)

We’re hosting the National Voter Registration Day, which happens every September. We’re hosting a big voter information fair on that day and creating greater awareness. We’ve been working with multiple campus stakeholders to generate awareness about the where and the when of voting and reflecting the culture that values voting.

For this upcoming election cycle, we’ve gotten commitments from [USC Information Technology Services] to have the in-class screens show pro-voting messages. We’ve gotten signage now. Allyson Felix Field has a big sign saying “Vote,” and you’ll see this on signs when you enter the USC parking structures. We have these Zoom backgrounds that many staff and faculty are using now promoting messages to vote, trying to instill it deeper and deeper into our culture here, so it becomes more of a part of them.

Part of the ethos of being a Trojan is being an informed citizen.

Do you think it’s especially challenging to encourage voting in the era we’re in? Over the past few years, it feels like the act of voting itself has become politicized, even if people don’t know who you’re voting for.

Sometimes the act of registering to vote or even voting can seem political or unwarranted, or somehow a wedge issue. So, how do you coax people out of that? With a few strategies. One of the strategies is to tell them that without the ability to vote, they cannot influence outcomes in any way they wish.

By not voting, they are giving up power. They may argue, “Look, I’m one person. What difference can I make?”

But then the counter to that argument is: If every person who thought their vote didn’t make a difference, if all of those people got together and voted, they would change the outcome of every single election.

These “decline-to-state voters” are the ones who are registered and don’t vote or the ones who never registered. Combined, they are actually the largest population in the United States. They have the most power of all, right? And yet they’re the ones who believe that they lack it the most. So, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of persuading them is just helping them realize that they’re intentionally giving up one of the greatest levers of change that they possess.

The other factor, though, is some people don’t vote because they feel daunted by the volume of choices and their lack of knowledge about those choices — such as who do you select as a Superior Court judge or to become a water district representative. If their thought is “It’s gonna take too long, and I don’t care,” then they don’t show up to vote.

We encourage people to just show up and vote for the things you are comfortable voting for, even if that’s 1 out of 20 things, that’s still better than zero out of 20 things.

And there are actually two more arguments for why you should vote. The third is that if you don’t become part of the process of change, then you sort of lose your right to complain about the reality that we live in. In that case, you’re not part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.

And then the last is just an educational point: Voting is a right and a privilege and one that does not exist in many parts of the world. Many of the people who have preceded us here are parents and grandparents — people in our communities who have sacrificed so much to ensure that we always have this right of self-governance. We need to honor their sacrifices. Voting respects what they’ve done for us and honors them with our participation.

You sound really passionate about this issue. What led you down this path?

This is a bit of a personal issue for me because I wasn’t born in this country. In the country where I was born, Iran, voting is not as democratic as it is here, and elections can be rigged. Freedoms are taken. The freedoms we have here in this country are not at all taken for granted.

For people in Iran, where I was born, they look to the United States as the greatest symbol of liberty and freedom in the world. We owe it to the world to be that beacon of hope, and to show the world that this fragile experiment in a democracy is one that’s worthy of not just reverence but is worthy of repeating.

This experiment is the only time in the history of humanity that people have had this degree of freedom in self-determination, and I know what it represents to the world. I know what it represents for all the immigrants who are and who wish they could be on our shores and are trying so hard to get into this country for all of our freedoms and liberties we possess and the opportunities we possess.

I just feel like people need to respect that. That’s why part of it for me is the immigrant experience of connecting with the power and the promise of democracy. The other is just seeing it work.

What do you mean by seeing it work?

If you vote, then you get to see that we got this measure to pass, or this candidate to succeed, or these issues to be relevant. And that’s so rewarding. The change you want to see in your own local communities is so achievable with a little bit of effort, smart campaigns and voter participation.

How old were you when you came to the United States?

My family came to the United States when I was 1, so I was a little baby then. Yeah. And we moved back when I was 7 or 8 then because my parents wanted to rebuild, help rebuild the country after the shah was deposed [in 1979]. But then the Iran-Iraq War started [in 1980], and … planes were bombing our neighbors, stuff like that was happening. And we thought: “What the hell have we done? Let’s get out of here.” And that’s when I realized you can’t just come back here. We had gone from President [Jimmy] Carter to President [Ronald] Reagan, and Reagan said: Iranians took hostages in 1979, and so we don’t want you back.

I remember we tried to get back in the U.S. And we couldn’t. We lived in Turkey for a while. We lived in Bulgaria for a while. We lived in France for a while. We tried and tried to come back in the U.S., and we just couldn’t. When we finally were able to do it, it was because one good man in Lafayette, La., spent a bunch of his own private money to help bring my family back, and he hired an immigration attorney so we could get back here.

It just made me think about the goodness of that, that Americans have, and how this guy in rural Louisiana was able to relate to — we barely spoke English — an Iranian family in order to make them feel welcome in this country of immigrants. I just thought that was so special. And that’s part of why I don’t take it for granted, because I knew how powerfully we yearned to come back here, instead of going back to a war-torn country or somewhere that just does not have as much economic mobility or personal safety.

When you see people putting their ballots in the box, what do you think about? What’s going through your head?

I think that this is how it’s supposed to work. I think: This is oxygen for this system, and without those ballots in those boxes this system perishes. And we don’t want it to perish.