“It was so disheartening to be extremely passionate about this work and to recognize and tell other people that voting is important and necessary to the health of our democracy, then to not be able to participate in it,” the 21-year-old said, adding that when she called the county, officials told her they were not sure why her ballot never arrived. “You have to think: If I was stopped from voting, who else was stopped from voting?”
There are signs that younger Americans, who have historically turned out at the polls at lower rates than older voters, are more energized about voting this November than they have been in decades. Yet the pandemic has created thorny challenges for college students trying to cast their ballots this year — and their predicaments are growing more dire as state voter registration deadlines loom.
Some schools that initially reopened this fall have already sent students home after struggling to contain soaring infection rates, creating complications for those who were planning to vote at or near campus. Other schools may follow suit at any given point this fall, leaving students unsure about the best address to use to register to vote.
Many colleges and universities that are still open canceled their fall breaks in an effort to send students home by Thanksgiving, which means some students who had planned on voting early at home in October no longer will have time off to do so.
The hurdles would be significant for any voter — much less for those who will be casting a ballot in a presidential election for the first time.
“Nervous and anxious definitely describe the apprehension and fear, honestly, of figuring out this voting plan,” said Katya Ehresman, a senior at UT-Austin who is planning to vote in person the day early voting begins in Texas on Oct. 13, in hopes of avoiding complications later in the semester.
The barriers facing youth voters could carry significant electoral consequences for Democrats. National polls show voters under 30 are less likely to identify with a political party but more likely to identify as liberal or progressive, and that recent protests over institutional racism and police brutality of Black Americans have galvanized their interest in the 2020 election.
More than 15 million Americans have turned 18 since the last presidential election, and young voters turned out in historic numbers in the 2018 elections, forming a crucial voting bloc that helped Democrats flip control of the House.
Students across the country are now working overdrive to organize online. Google Forms have replaced voter-registration tables on campus. Hundreds of student leaders are sharing voting resources through a Slack community they created this year. Some have posted YouTube and Instagram tutorials about mail voting — one even parodying rapper Cardi B’s summer hit song in a TikTok video about the Postal Service.
“We tell them: ‘No matter what you do, keep in mind the real possibility of campus being shut down,’ ” said Steggall, president of TX Votes.
Signs of high interest
In a normal election year, college students voting for the first time grapple with a unique set of questions, including whether their student identification card is a valid form of ID at the polls. (The answer: not everywhere.)
They also typically encounter a barrage of activities aimed at urging them to the polls, including voter-registration drives on campus, candidate visits and raucous get-out-the-vote rallies.
This year, however, the quads are largely quiet — and many students have dispersed back to their hometowns or settled in temporary pandemic locations. Now the organizing work has gone mostly online, through texts and social media.
The Biden campaign has held virtual events to boost his standing among Generation Z and millennial voters, such as a “Young Folks for Biden” virtual bus tour featuring younger celebrities like model Karlie Kloss. Trump and the Republican Party have sought to reach young voters through digital ads, including on Snapchat and through peer-to-peer outreach driven by young Republicans.
Many independent groups that would be typically blanketing schools with staff and volunteers on campuses are instead partnering with campus social media influencers to target messages for specific student bodies.
The power of in-person voter interactions on campus are casual encounters with “a friendly face who is confident about a confusing process,” said Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America, a Democratic youth turnout group. The goal is to recreate that feeling online so students see voting information in areas where they congregate, such as the Instagram page of a coffee shop near campus or the school’s star quarterback, he said.
But gauging the impact of get-out-the-vote efforts is difficult without being able to rely on methods from past years, such as watching early voting numbers in key precincts around college campuses.
“It’s obviously super difficult when everyone is mailing in their ballot, and some states don’t track which precincts are mailing in their ballots. So some tools we used to have, we don’t have,” said Wessel, former youth vote director for Obama’s 2012 campaign in New Hampshire.
Young voters have historically voted at lower rates than their older counterparts. In 2016, 46.1 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 cast ballots, the lowest turnout of all age groups, according to Census Bureau data.
But there are signs that voters under 30 could turn out in larger numbers this fall, researchers say, including the dramatic increase in turnout among college students in the 2018 midterms, according to a Tufts University study.
The study found that 40 percent of students who were eligible to vote cast ballots in 2018, up from 19 percent in 2014, and that youth turnout played a key role in determining the outcome in tight congressional and Senate races.
“With the pandemic and with the era of racial justice and inequality revealing itself, young people feel even more motivated,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan organization focused on youth engagement at Tufts University. “We’re seeing an uptick in all the numbers of voting engagement, as well as protest and marches.”
Youth turnout has the highest potential to influence the outcome of presidential elections in battleground states, with Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona as the top five states where the youth vote is most likely to be decisive, according to Tufts research.
“The turnout of youth can determine the direction of our communities and our country,” Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, a left-leaning youth voter engagement organization. “We have to make sure the youth are actually voting.”
But while many Americans are turning to mail ballots this year because of the pandemic, that voting option can be uniquely challenging for college students — some of whom have never used the Postal Service or had to buy stamps.
Compounding the problem: Voting requirements are still in flux in many states, with new court rulings daily on ballot deadlines and witness requirements, leaving some faculty members and campus organizers uncertain about how to provide accurate and timely resources.
Ally Longo, a 19-year-old student at Columbia College Chicago, works with a civic engagement group on campus, Columbia Votes, to help other students navigate voting challenges, including delivering envelopes to mail their voter registration applications and stamps to students who may have difficulty finding them.
The school has reopened for the fall, and about 25 percent of its classes are held in-person. But if the campus closes, officials are not permitted to forward student mail, Longo said — potentially leading to stranded ballots. Her group is advising students living on campus to register at their home address in case college housing shuts down before Election Day.
Longo, who is registered to vote in her hometown of Irvine, Calif., worries that mail delays could slow the delivery of her ballot or that she could be forced to go home before her ballot arrives. While she lives in off-campus housing, she is bracing for any potential scenario.
“If my vote-by-mail ballot doesn’t get here in time, I can’t just go to the polls in Chicago and say, ‘Hey, I’m registered to vote in California.’ I can’t do that,” Longo said.
“It’s a stressful time for everyone,” she added. “No one wants to be kicked out of their dorm or home.”
‘Calling us to action’
Although her school has gone fully virtual, 19-year-old Julia Clark returned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her sophomore year because she couldn’t break the lease for her off-campus apartment. She decided to keep her voter registration in at her parent’s home in Virginia and requested her absentee ballot.
But the elections office unexpectedly mailed her a notice requesting a new application for an absentee ballot — which she would have missed had she not returned home for a brief visit to Virginia. Now she is worried about whether she will get her ballot in the mail in time for November.
“I was already not excited to vote in this election” for either presidential candidate, Clark said. “But to make matters worse, the fact that this process is so strenuous and there are so many things I need to do and extra turns I need to take, it makes it even more nerve-racking.”
To cheer each other on, younger voters are flooding social media with videos about how to check a voter registration and cast a ballot by mail.
In one TikTok video, a college student films himself making a dish with random ingredients — coconut, angel hair pasta, mango and rice — chosen by his 1.6 million followers as a part of a cooking challenge designed to encourage his followers to register to vote.
In another, a woman walks her 175-pound tortoise named Tiptoe to drop off her mail-in ballot to show how easy it is to vote early by mail. (Tiptoe gets strawberries as a treat after the trip.)
Student leaders are also urging school administrators to provide resources for students to help them register to vote and to consider upcoming voting registration deadlines as they determine whether campuses should shut down.
“It’s calling us to action to take responsibility for what we can right now,” said Erika Neal, 21, a graduate student at University of California at Berkeley who is involved with the Campus Vote Project. “This is a new voting block that has never had a chance to offer their opinion about what’s happening in this country, and it’s time for us to use our voices and get out of our seats and do something.”
Turnout efforts are particularly intensifying among students attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) who want to make sure they can cast ballots this November, especially given the disproportionate impact on Black communities posed by the coronavirus and historic barriers that have faced Black voters.
Ja’Neese Jefferson, a senior at Virginia State University, and her fellow students are creating informational guides, videos and social media challenges to help their peers understand their voting options. They are dropping in on classes via Zoom to encourage students to check their voter registration information, holding online forums to answer their questions and sending students to national and statewide voter hotlines for more information.
“I just want people to understand that this is very important, and this is a way for you to have your voice heard,” said Jefferson, who is taking classes remotely. “As an HCBU [student], it makes it that much more important, because we just got the right to vote 50 years ago.”