Rock the Vote SB, a voter registration organization that operated on campus and in Isla Vista, shut down earlier this month amidst claims from volunteers and community members that the organization was illegitimate and was in fact created to tip the favor toward one of the candidates in the upcoming Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors election.
There was no public questioning of the group’s practices until a Facebook post published on Jan. 11 by the Student Activist Network alleged that Rock the Vote SB was not a legitimate chapter of the national Rock the Vote organization.
“Rock the Vote SB stole the logo of a nonprofit that has national recognition for being a nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote effort. They then set up a nonprofit and used that branding of that trusted nonprofit, basically as a way to say that their organization is objective and is to be trusted,” said Ry Brennan, a member of the Student Activist Network.
A representative from the national Rock the Vote organization confirmed that Rock the Vote SB was formed in August 2019 as a part of the larger organization, but as of now is “not a legitimate chapter.” They also said that the national organization sent Rock the Vote SB a cease-and-desist letter in December.
Former Rock the Vote SB Executive Director Robin Howe explained in a statement that Rock the Vote SB was a compliant chapter with the national organization beginning in August 2019. In November, he was told that Rock the Vote DC “received complaints” regarding the Rock the Vote SB operation. Rock the Vote SB initially “wholeheartedly attempted to work with them to bring our operation into compliance,” he said, but was asked by the national organization in December to “drop our affiliation.”
Rock the Vote SB then “immediately ceased operation[s],” Howe said.
Howe added that the Student Activist Network’s allegations –– which included that Rock the Vote SB suppressed the vote in I.V. by encouraging online voter registration, telling people their car insurance would go up if they voted in Isla Vista and that the group encouraged people to vote at home instead of in I.V. –– were “misleading and unverified.”
The allegations of voter suppression not only relate to Rock the Vote but also alleged ties to Bruce Porter, a candidate running for the third district seat in the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors March election.
Howe said that in August 2019, he responded to a post on the Rock the Vote SB website that stated the group was hiring. He then was “introduced to and met briefly with Bruce Porter,” who “mentioned his intention was to create a non-partisan voter registration group in Isla Vista.”
In a letter Porter sent to his supporters on Jan. 15, which was obtained by the Nexus, Porter discussed Rock the Vote’s alleged intent to cause low voter turnout.
“[Congressman Salud] Carbajal and [Supervisor Joann] Hartmann went all out to crush the nonpartisan voter registration effort in Isla Vista and shotgun accusations of voter suppression,” Porter wrote.
“This year, Rock the Vote has done a fabulous job of providing truthful and objective voter registration education to students. The result: far more students chose to register back home and there are 1400 fewer students registered to vote in IV this year, compared to this point in 2016, even though the student population has significantly increased.”
Howe told his staff in an email sent on Jan. 15 that operations were “on hold for the moment” due to “local political issues.” Howe told them in the email to refrain from wearing their T-shirts and doing any branding and to delete all social media accounts.
Volunteers were left without a clear reason why all operations had ended out of nowhere as Howe instructed staff to tell current and potential volunteers “the schedule is full and no more volunteers are needed.”
Multiple Rock the Vote SB volunteers spoke to the Nexus, saying they had no idea that the organization was illegitimate until this week.
“I saw a post on Free and For Sale that was basically just trashing Rock the Vote for all these allegations,” said Sean Price, a first-year pre-biology major. “At first I didn’t believe it, but then I found out that the website was gone, Facebook was gone; I haven’t checked their Instagram, but I’m sure that’s gone too. I didn’t hear anything from them when this all happened.”
A second-year volunteer, who asked not to be named, said that they tried to reach out about changing their shift day for winter quarter and never heard back.
“What I did get was an email about there’s been stuff going on this week with tabling. So I had no idea basically what was going on until I read an article on Facebook about that it could potentially be a fraudulent organization … they stopped tabling, and then just nothing.”
The Student Activist Network raised three separate allegations against Rock the Vote SB accusing them of voter suppression in Isla Vista. The group alleges that Rock the Vote gave out voter registration cards at the Arbor instead of filling out physical forms, that they told people their car insurance costs would increase if they registered to vote in I.V. and that they encouraged people to vote at their home addresses in other parts of the state instead of in I.V.
Volunteers who spoke to the Nexus confirmed that official registration forms were “rarely” provided for tabling in favor of voter registration cards that directed people to the Rock the Vote SB website, which has since been shut down, to register to vote on their own time.
In the eyes of the Student Activist Network, handing out cards makes it less likely for students to register to vote.
“I have tabled many times at the Arbor and I know that students are often walking by very, very quickly. They often take things that are handed to them and then immediately throw them away,” Brennan said.
“The best way to actually get somebody signed up to vote is to actually ask them to come over to your table and fill out the form. That is the only way that you could actually guarantee that the people who you have actually gotten to bring over to your booth are actually going to follow through … We only complicate the process when we ask people to go online to fill out forms.”
Howe said in a statement that Rock the Vote SB encouraged online registration but “ALWAYS carried hardcopies of voter registration cards for those who preferred that method which we found to be rare because Gen Z generally is a digital culture.”
One second-year volunteer, who requested their name not be used, said they were confused about why voter registration forms were not the norm but didn’t deeply question the practice because they believed Rock the Vote SB to be a legitimate organization.
“I feel really frustrated because in retrospect looking back, things were sort of red flags,” they said. They added that they were made familiar with the organization through a UCSB honors mail listserv.
“I just never assumed that through an honors mail listserv that an actual, illegitimate thing could be presented to us students,” they said.
Another allegation raised by the Student Activist Network was that Rock the Vote SB told students that their car insurance rates would go up if they registered to vote in I.V., which they heard from multiple students who Rock the Vote SB volunteers had spoken with, but Howe rejected that claim.
“I have never heard of the concept of car insurance rates getting raised nor did anything remotely close to that ever get discussed with my team,” Howe said in the statement.
“This claim is the most bizarre of them all. It is so obviously unbelievable it waves a red flag as to how low the people spreading these dishonest statements will go for their own political gain.”
No volunteers that the Nexus spoke with had ever heard of discussions about car insurance rates increasing.
The final issue raised by the Student Activist Network is that Rock the Vote SB suppressed the vote by “dissuading people from registering in IV on the grounds that other elections in the Bay, LA, and San Diego are more contested,” according to its Facebook post.
On the backside of the Rock the Vote SB online voting card obtained by the Nexus, the card reads that “It’s Your Choice Where to Register,” whether that be at home or school.
The card’s wording did not raise alarms for Price until this past week.
“There are three places on the card: Los Angeles, San Diego and Bay Area issues, but nothing in Santa Barbara, like no reason to vote in Santa Barbara, and then there’s websites to each place about those issues,” Price said.
“It basically just said vote where you think your opinion matters more, like where you’ll make a difference, which is basically what I told people and what I thought was being advertised by them, but now I’ve heard that it’s not.”
With no further information from Howe or Rock the Vote SB in general, student volunteers for Rock the Vote SB have been left confused about where the organization stands and remain frustrated by new information.
“Everything looked very legit and no interactions that I had with anyone were bad. They were all just pretty straightforward. I was just to get my volunteer hours, so that’s really frustrating for someone who was trying to have volunteers actually make a difference and register people to vote and that’s important to me,” one volunteer said.
“I can’t help beating myself up, like why didn’t I, like, think this was a bigger issue at the time?”
“Honestly, I’m waiting for more information to come to light because I feel very taken advantage of,” Price said.
“I figured I was doing something to help voter registration and improve community involvement. And if that’s the opposite of what was happening, then that’s the exact opposite of why I joined this.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Jan. 23 print edition of the Daily Nexus.