College students were once hailed as a crucial voting bloc in 2020, but their momentum may be halted by the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered campuses from coast to coast.
Registration drives, absentee ballot parties, political forums and new voter trainings are all on hold. Students are scrambling to chase down absentee ballot forms that were mailed to campuses but must now be forwarded to a home or other address. Newly designated campus polling places will stand empty for the remaining primaries, several of which have been delayed in any case. And students who return this fall will have little time to prepare for Election Day.
Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, college voters were having a rough year. Their preferred candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was proving incapable of reversing former Vice President Joe Biden's commanding lead in the Democratic presidential primaries. Republicans have erected roadblocks to student voting in Florida, New Hampshire, Texas and elsewhere — including residency requirements and restrictions on early voting, campus polling places and the use of student IDs for voting.
But the coronavirus is the wild card that now threatens student voting power most directly. It's a sudden reversal of fortunes for a fast-growing movement to expand campus voting that had, until now, seemed unstoppable.
College and university students, who number some 20 million nationwide, more than doubled their turnout between 2014 and 2018, from 19 percent to 40 percent, according to Tufts University research. And voters younger than 35 are emerging as the nation's largest voting bloc.
Surging youth activism has been fueled by President Trump's election and by younger voters' concerns over climate change, gun violence and other issues — helping to spawn dozens of new groups to boost student voting since 2016. More than 400 organizations, both on and off campuses, belong to a Students Learn Students Vote Coalition that promotes student voting and civic engagement.
These include the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, which gives awards to colleges and universities that boost voting rates, and the Campus Vote Project, which works with administrators, faculty, students and election officials to eliminate barriers to student voting. A subgroup of coalition partners that includes MTV and the Alliance for Youth Organizing has launched a "+1 The Polls" movement to open dozens of new, on-campus voting locations around the country.
Now leaders of the campus democracy movement are scrambling to regroup amid the broader challenge of moving all college and university classes, seminars and exams online.
On a group Twitter chat hosted Wednesday by the coalition, groups including the Student PIRGs and the Alliance for Youth Action described a massive shift from field organizing to digital organizing using all the available tools — from telephone calls and text messages to tweet banks and Instagram takeovers to Zoom video chats and virtual town halls.
Participants brainstormed ways to update students on the shifting primary and absentee voting landscape, and stressed the need to keep things fun with pop culture trends, dance memes and remote get-togethers, such as the "Couch Party" hosted this week by the nonprofit When We All Vote to text eligible voters.
But if voter suppression efforts succeed by making voting inconvenient, but a global pandemic is "the ultimate inconvenience," says Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts' Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. "We are all stuck in our homes. We are all socially distancing ourselves. And voting is a social act. People vote because their friends vote. People vote in packs."
Thomas and her team are urging educators and allies to spend the coming weeks figuring out how to engage potential student voters while they are off campus. This includes addressing both technical and motivational hurdles to voting.
Students need help with tactical questions about voter registration, absentee ballots, and whether to vote near campus or home. But the most successful campuses also help students to engage in and navigate political conversations, says Thomas. Like many civic educators, she sees the pandemic as a teachable moment.
"They should create opportunities for conversations, discussions about political issues that can be held online. They should be teaching about civic responsibility in the age of a crisis," says Thomas. "This virus presents an amazing learning opportunity on why partisanship in policy making can be so devastating."
Every Vote Counts, a student-led voter turnout group that has 50 chapters, contacts and partners around the country, is urging its student organizers to "really hit their administrative and faculty contacts now" to gear up for fall, says the group's executive director, Campbell Streator. The primaries are important, and several still lie ahead in such college-campus-rich states as Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin.
But the group's real focus is on the general election, says Streator, when colleges will have just a few crucial touch-points — student orientation, move-in days, required classes — to prepare students for voting in the short weeks before Election Day. The goal, he says, will be "making sure that every student when they come back to campus in the fall is asked: Are you registered? Do you want to register?"
Variables that will affect student turnout include whether they live in states that vote entirely by mail — Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii — or in states with no-excuse absentee voting, such as Arizona, Florida and Georgia. Another factor will be how well Democrats and voting rights advocates succeed in their recent push to expand voting by mail.
The pandemic has upended voting for everyone. But for students, says Streator, it throws "an additional unknown, or an additional hurdle, into an already complicated process."
Carney is a contributing writer.
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Drysdale is the assistant director for campus partnerships at the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, which works to increase nonpartisan democratic engagement on college campuses.
In the rural mountains of northern Thailand, I clutched my colleague Wan around the waist as I sat perched on the back of his dirt bike. I'd joined him on this seven-hour ride through winding mountains to his hometown to witness him vote in Thailand's first democratic election in five years. At that moment I was not aware that this journey would eventually divert my nascent career in international development to one focused on democratic engagement in the United States.
As I learned more about the U.S. election process, I became increasingly aware of the various privileges I have in accessing the polls. In high school, my social studies teacher drove our class to the courthouse to register to vote. In my first election during college in 2006, a mentor from my small Iowa community emailed me to ask if I had requested my absentee ballot yet; I had not and likely wouldn't have without that reminder. In 2008, I still remember the buzz and excitement at the polling place conveniently located on my campus. During the 2012 presidential election, while I was living abroad, my mom helped the county clerk send me a ballot in Australia. Only later did I realize this level of support and access was not the norm.
It's because of these experiences – seeing the lengths to which some people must go to cast a ballot and becoming aware of how instrumental early support is to becoming a voter – that I now work to support youth democratic engagement in the United States at the All In Campus Democracy Challenge.
With 20 million students attending colleges and universities in the United States, it is imperative that higher education institutions leverage their opportunity to help increase nonpartisan civic learning and democratic engagement to develop informed and involved members of our communities and our democracy.
While some narratives focus on perceived youth voter apathy, college students face challenges accessing the polls and developing the habits of informed voters. Civics education is limited in many areas. Young people are highly mobile, requiring them to frequently re-register to vote and learn new election laws, which vary from state to state. Many voter ID laws don't include student IDs in lists of accepted identification while fewer young people are obtaining driver's licenses. College students who do not live at home have to decide where to register and vote. Securing absentee ballots can require multiple steps and even that one appear in person, which poses a challenge for students living far from home. There are more systems in place to help a young person file their taxes online than to help young people become confident voters through simplified processes to register to vote, access the polls and cast a ballot.
The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, housed at the Institute of Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, measures college student voter registration and voter turnout. NSLVE found that the 2014 midterm election voter turnout for college students was 19.1 percent. During the 2016 presidential election, only 50.4 percent of college students cast a ballot. Turnout for college students aged 18 to 21 years old was 45 percent while turnout for college students aged 30 to 39 was more than 10 points higher at 55.7 percent. These turnout results demand that more work is done to support young people as they cast their ballots by increasing nonpartisan democratic engagement on campus.
The All In Campus Democracy Challenge was created in 2016 to help empower colleges and universities to increase nonpartisan democratic engagement. We are a national, nonpartisan initiative that supports and recognizes the work of nearly 500 colleges and universities in 48 states and the District of Columbia to increase civic learning, political engagement and voter participation. The Challenge encourages institutions to help students form the habits of active and informed citizenship, as well as to institutionalize democratic engagement activities and programs – making them a defining feature of campus life. Through a combination of structure, support and recognition, we partner with campuses to ensure that students graduate ready to help strengthen our democracy.
By making a public commitment to increasing nonpartisan democratic engagement and creating data-informed action plans to institutionalize efforts, campuses develop a comprehensive understanding of their students, efforts and climate for democratic engagement and establish short-term and long-term goals for improvement. Colleges and universities develop a campus culture that promotes democratic engagement throughout the curriculum and co-curriculum. Students acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors to be prepared to be lifelong participants needed for a strong and vibrant democracy.
Over the past three years, we have seen campuses greatly increase democratic engagement efforts on campus. More students are now registered to vote during orientation, in residence halls, and in classrooms. State-specific election information emails are sent to students that are especially helpful for out-of-state students. Campus communities are hosting absentee ballot request parties and parties at the polls with our partner #VoteTogether. Civic learning is being integrated into classrooms beyond the social sciences. Institutionally branded voter engagement efforts are highly visible on more campuses. Many more organizations that are our fellow members of the national Students Learn Students Vote coalition – including the Andrew Goodman Foundation, APIAVote, Campus Electoral Engagement Project, the Voter Friendly Campus initiative and Voto Latino – are working with campuses to implement voter registration, voter education and voter turnout programming. Athletic conference learning communities like the Big Ten Voting Challenge are gaining traction. Secretaries of state offices are launching state voting challenges for colleges and universities.
These committed, coordinated and long-term efforts are part of the reason that turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds increased 15 percentage points in 2018 from 13 percent in 2014 to 28 percent, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. College- and university-specific turnout data will be available from NSLVE this summer. While there is still a long way to go to increase and sustain high levels of participation, it's important for us to acknowledge and celebrate this success. In only three years, nearly 500 colleges and universities representing more than 5 million students have joined the All In Challenge, making a commitment and taking action to be part of the solution to increasing turnout among college students. While this represents a great start, there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities enrolling 20 million students. Together we can increase access to the polls and reduce barriers like I witnessed Wan overcome while ensuring every college voter has the reminders, education and support that I was fortunate to have to become a voter.
On November 12, 2019, the All In Challenge will host our second biennial award ceremony to honor campuses with seals of recognition and national awards for the 2018 midterm election. If you're interested to see if your campus or alma mater is participating in the Challenge, you can check here. If you don't find yours on this list, nominate your campus to join the All In Challenge allowing us to help empower more college and universities to achieve excellence in student democratic engagement.
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The ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge strives for a more inclusive democracy—one in which all voices are heard. We envision a country in which the electorate mirrors our country's makeup and college students are democratically engaged on an ongoing basis, during and between elections and not just at the polls.
Organizer: All In Campus Democracy Challenge
The ALL IN Challenge will be hosting our 2nd biennial award ceremony to honor campuses with seals of recognition and national awards for the 2018 midterm election.
Location: Knight Conference Center, Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001