The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered thousands of colleges and universities around the US, creating new challenges for young voters both in registering to vote and in accessing polling places. In response, student activists are working to employ new strategies for enfranchising first-time voters — and ensuring they actually vote.
Finding ways to increase the youth vote has long been a challenge. The US has one of the lowest youth voter turnout rates in the world, with voters 60 and over nearly three times as likely to turn out to vote as 18- to 29-year-olds, according to data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems. But a new study from the Knight Foundation suggests the youth turnout may be higher in 2020 — the foundation found more than 70 percent of college students plan to vote in November.
Across the US, voting rights activists hope to ensure those plans become reality, and that barriers that have led to low voting numbers in the past — for instance, confusion over how to register to vote — do not depress turnout this year. Traditionally, colleges and universities have been useful avenues for voter education and empowerment, but with so many institutions providing fall instruction remotely, that will not be the case this year.
“In many ways, it’s changed completely in that we can’t canvass anymore, we can’t go knock on doors, almost everything we’re going to be doing is virtual,” said president of Penn Democrats and rising University of Pennsylvania senior Owen Voutsinas-Klose. “We’re going to need to figure out a way to get to reach people if everybody is indoors.”
In order to reach their fellow students, Voutsinas-Klose and other student activists hope to educate their peers differently this year, leveraging technology and their networks to ensure college students still have access to the polls — even if they aren’t physically on campus.
From phone banking to designing guides that describe how to register for absentee ballots, campus organizers are doing everything they can to get their peers to vote this November. And despite the pandemic, many of them remain optimistic about voter turnout.
“One thing that gives me a lot of hope is that we’ve been seeing a real uprising of student activists and student leadership in the political and civic engagement kind of area in light of George Floyd’s murder and kind of this reckoning with racial injustice in America,” junior and co-director of the nonpartisan student group Penn Leads the Vote Eva Gonzalez said. “I think we’ve definitely seen a lot of people wanting to get more engaged, and, you know, obviously voting is a part of that.”
With their school now completely remote, Gonzalez and her team have been using a method they call reverse door-knocking to get their fellow University of Pennsylvania students registered — and excited — to vote. The technique works through leveraging networks: They reach out to student leaders on campus, provide them with information about upcoming elections, and encourage them to pass it on to their respective groups.
While the internet has made this sort of remote voter outreach possible for years, other student activists note there are limitations to digital organizing — particularly when student bodies are spread across numerous states, each with their own voting laws. And this has led some activists to promote relying on absentee ballots sent back to elections officials in their schools’ home states over trying to register students in their home jurisdictions.
Rick Hart — a Morehouse College junior who is active in his student government and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign, and who leads his school’s chapter of National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by Rev. Al Sharpton — said he and other activists on campus are advocating for mail-in ballots, given Morehouse classes are completely remote in the fall.
“We’re going to have to rely on sending our ballots back to Georgia, and what worries me is that you’ll have the governor of Georgia [and] president of the United States who will do everything in their power to prevent that from happening,” Hart said, referencing President Donald Trump’s stated opposition to mail-in voting and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s efforts to pass a bill banning mail ballot requests.
Hart said he hopes these concerns can be overcome via voter education — his groups plan to help students understand how to meet challenges presented by mail-in voting and ballot deadlines through digital information sessions.
And there is some evidence that efforts to allay concerns about mail-in voting may be working; the Knight Foundation’s survey found that the majority of college students — 53 percent — plan to vote by mail in November.
A number of experts are concerned that despite early signs of enthusiasm like those found by the Knight Foundation — and despite the efforts of activists like Gonzalez and Hart — youth voter turnout will be particularly low in 2020. Their concerns are founded in the persistence of barriers that have historically led to low youth turnout, as well as new barriers that have arisen due to the pandemic. And while activists like Gonzalez are optimistic about the energy recent protests have inspired among young adults, some researchers believe a recent uptick in political activism will not translate to more youth voter engagement.
“They’ll know it’s important, that they should be talking about it and knowing about it, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into action. In fact, it might replace action,” Eitan Hersh, a Tufts associate professor of political science and author of the book Politics Is for Power, said.
Some of this pessimism comes from the fact that increased participation in movements has not traditionally led to greater participation in the electoral process.
University of Virginia politics professor and author of Making Young Voters John Holbein pointed to the issue of climate change as an example of this phenomenon. The youth-led climate change movement has built up momentum — particularly over the past decade — but youth voter turnout, even in elections featuring candidates who focus on the issue, has remained low.
Even without taking the pandemic into account, Holbein said, “I’m really worried that many of the structural barriers that have stopped young people from voting for decades are still in place, and if not more prevalent in an election where the voting rules are uncertain, where the election is uncertain, where the president is tweeting about moving the election.”
Those barriers include access to polling sites, inflexible work and schooling schedules, and restrictive policies like voter ID laws. And while most states have expanded access to mail-in ballots, the process for getting them can be opaque — particularly for first-time voters.
Activists remain cognizant of these barriers, but nevertheless are hopeful about voter turnout among their peers due to increased political engagement since the start of the pandemic — and due to general youth enthusiasm about voting this year.
“I really think that we’re at an inflection point in this country in terms of what is on the ballot. This is a matter of life and death,” Hart said. “You have to vote in this election.”
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