‘There’s so much energy right now’: Youth organizers tackle voter engagement amid a pandemic

Following a summer of political activism and frustration around Covid-19, young people say they’re channeling their energy and dissatisfaction with the current political system into voter engagement.

But with in-person campus life largely at a halt, they’re facing a new challenge of connecting with their peers from afar.

Students at colleges and universities across the country have drawn up new plans for voter engagement and built innovative ways to reach their classmates.

Much like other parts of life amid the pandemic, social media and video calls may take the place of tabling in the quad or knocking on doors to get out the vote.

This past weekend, a group of college-aged grassroots organizers convened Generation Democracy, an online conference to mobilize young people as voters, volunteers and organizers. Organizers with NextGen America have led virtual drag shows and online rallies via Twitch and even Animal Crossing to engage voters. And a youth-led organization called The GAP Project is working to pair high schoolers and other college-aged students with campaigns across the country by using a quiz and algorithm based off their stances on issues such as climate change, abortion and gun control.

And, devoid of in-person interaction, young organizers are focused on alternative modes for peer-to-peer conversations.

Bruce Wilson, a senior at Hampton University in Virginia, emphasized the need to engage directly with unenthusiastic voters. This fall, he plans to ignite conversations about the importance of voting and the issues he cares about through phone calls and Instagram DMs.

To decide who to call and DM, Wilson says, he conducts short polls and surveys on his social media platforms to gauge his community’s excitement about the election and the political process. He asks questions including, “Did you vote in 2016,” “Do you plan on voting in November” and “Is your favorite candidate still in the race?”

Wilson says “conversation and open dialogue” is a “strong tool that people don’t utilize enough.”

He has found that having a conversation with a peer can help them “understand the significance of their vote,” he said.

This weekend, sessions at the Generation Democracy conference focused on similar tactics.

“It’s social media, so be social,” Rina Welch told participants in a session on using social media to get out the vote, which focused on best practices for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. Welch, 25, is a social media strategist with Blue Future, a political action committee that connects young people to progressive campaigns. She encouraged participants to post using “tangible language” about how and why they’re voting.

“Everybody has their platform; that doesn’t matter if you have literally 25 followers or a thousand or more,” Mitchell Rosenberg, the 23-year-old founder of Now Simplified, a short-form media company, said during the same session.

Trevor Wild, 22, talked about using TikTok to share his story and how he feels about politics. Wild is a gun violence-prevention activist.

Recent trends in youth voting

Historically, getting students to vote has been difficult and youth voter turnout has been low. They have faced challenges, including barriers to voting access, suppression of young voters and a lack of civic education, which may account for the low turnout, according to an op-ed written by Alan Solomont, dean of Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, and Dan Glickman, a former US secretary of agriculture who now works at the Aspen Institute.

In the past five years, many schools have revamped their on-campus voter-registration and get-out-the-vote initiatives — a trend that has coincided with a national rise in youth activism and high youth voter turnout.

In the 2018 midterm elections, young voters hit the polls at a rate of 36%, according to the Census Bureau. That was a jump up from 20% in the 2014 midterms — the highest percentage-point increase for any age group, the Census Bureau reported.

Many college campuses, including Harvard, Brown and the University of Texas at Austin, reported student voting rates much higher than those of the previous midterm elections, in 2014.

Younger Americans do appear to be more likely vote this November than they did four years ago. From late May through August 2020, an average of 56% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they were certain to vote in ABC News/Washington Post polling. During that same period in 2016, it was 50%. For 30- to 39-year-olds, an average of 64% said they were certain to vote in the last three polls. During that same period in 2016, it was 57%.

Some voting turnout efforts also are supported by campus administrations or local officials.

Ahead of the California primary, 11 Cal State campuses, including Sacramento State and Fresno State, announced they would host voting centers.

According to Nathan Dietrich, associate vice president, public affairs and advocacy, at Sacramento State, the on-campus voting center helped turnout in the primary. Dietrich says that more than 1,000 students voted at the site and hundreds of others dropped their ballots off at the vote center on or prior to Election Day.

Barring a statewide ban on in-person voting, Sacramento State and Fresno State intend to keep their voting centers open with Covid-19 precautions in November, despite the fact that classes at both schools are operating mostly remotely.

According to Lisa Boyles Bell, public information officer at Fresno State, the school has been working closely with the Fresno County elections office and the secretary of state’s office to create a plan that’s safe and responsible for those voting at Fresno State.

“We expect high student voter turnout in November, with students using their vote-by-mail option or the on-campus vote center, whichever is more convenient to them,” said Dietrich of Cal State Sacramento.

Brandi Orth, Fresno County clerk and registrar of voters, said she hopes student turnout at the voting center at Fresno State is high again this fall as well. The vast majority of students at Fresno State are from California. Even though students will be social-distancing in November, “I still think they will vote there because it’s familiar,” Orth said.

Youth political engagement is high but it’s not guaranteed in November

Research from the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning Engagement at Tufts demonstrates that young people believe they can enact change this election cycle. According to a June poll from the center, 79% of young people say Covid-19 helped them realize that politics matter in their everyday lives and 83% currently believe they have the power to change the country.

At the same time, as Wilson noted, some young people are skeptical of electoral processes and representation. Some young voters cite that while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, Trump still won the presidency. Others say that because of state-level laws that may limit absentee voting, it is harder than it should be for young people to vote.

According to Iman Jaroudi, a junior at Yale, “A video teaching you how to vote absentee will not necessarily get you excited to do it.”

This past summer, Jaroudi was part of a reading group led by the Yale chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America. Their reading list included “ABC’s of Capitalism,” “Racecraft” and “No Shortcuts,” a book about grassroots organizing.

Chatting with peers each week about the themes and topics of their readings has inspired her and other young Democrats and democratic socialists “to get excited and engaged” about voting this November.

“Having frank and honest conversations, getting feedback, finding what resonates, that’s gonna be really important in the fall,” she said. Jaroudi said the readings will influence the way she engages her community in conversations about voting and the need for community and community organizing outside of electoral politics this November.

Enthusiastic student voters are looking to cultivate a sense of civic duty and to raise voter participation from their peers by emphasizing the need for change and the ability for votes to matter not just at the federal, but also at the local, level, especially ahead of elections that they say are both important and urgent.

Christopher Schiller, a junior and vice president of the University of Pennsylvania’s College Republicans chapter, said he thinks that college students want to vote now more than ever. He believes the activism in the streets will translate to the polls in November.

“Many of my friends went out and protested, despite [there] being a pandemic going on … people went out of their way to be involved in the political process,” Schiller said. “Everyone that I know personally will go out and vote,” he believes. Schiller will be working with Penn Republicans this fall to hold virtual voter-registration events and phone banks.

Likewise, Harrison Feinman, a junior at Penn from Los Angeles who’s the director of Penn Leads the Vote, is similarly optimistic about voting this fall. He explained that the school’s theme of the year is civic engagement, which he says means the school will be fostering “every realm of civic engagement, which, of course, includes voting.” This year’s theme demonstrates a commitment from the school to educate its student body on what it means to be an active citizen, Feinman said.

Across the country, student leaders are on a mission

Anjitha Nair, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of TX Votes, said she didn’t return to campus for classes this fall and that she plans to vote in her home county, Collin County, in November.

According to Nair, the issue that’s motivating her to vote is a candidate’s vision for economic recovery, including policies to bring manufacturing back and resolve current levels of unemployment, eviction and small business closure in America. From her home in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, Nair says she’ll be working with TX Votes to create digital content and mobilize its members’ networks of friends. She says she will also use social media to help her own friends and social network register to vote.

At Brown, with no first-year students on campus this fall, one organization prepared videos and information with voter-registration and in-person or vote-by-mail materials that were sent to first-year students.

Madison Mandell and Kimberly Collins, civic engagement fellows with Brown Votes, are holding virtual office hours for voter registration and questions about in-person voting or voting by mail. They will provide an open forum for voting-related questions on the website.

“And then, also, our DMs on social media will always be open for, you know, anyone to ask a question,” Mandell said.

Harvard Votes Challenge, a program that launched ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, started an initiative called the “Pledge to 100%,” asking every on-campus club, team, student group and organization to sign the pledge. According to Kevin Ballen, a junior who’s a co-chair of Harvard Votes Challenge, the pledge commits each organization to talking about voting and ensuring its eligible members register to vote and turn out. Groups participating include sports teams, finals clubs and affinity groups, Ballen said. He said he hopes this energy is sustained in future election cycles.

“There’s so much energy right now, because for the first time in my lifetime, in the lifetime of people in my generation, we’ve had a crisis that demanded our government act and we needed our government,” said Jonathan Schwartz, a student leader with Yale Votes.

Like Schiller, Schwartz believes that among protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, people are “really starting to hone their role as actors in a democratic society.”

“Combine that on top of the urgency that already surrounded the 2020 election. We have a huge wave of youth engagement, of student engagement, building up over the summer. That’s going to come back to college campuses one way or another in the fall.”