Colleges have always been important grounds for organizing. And in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, it’s been clear college voters and young people—who tend to lean Democratic in their politics—will have an important role to play in November.
However, the coronavirus presents an unprecedented situation—both for voting, and for higher education. Many colleges are still figuring out what campus will look like in the fall. And due to social distancing measures, those that have announced plans to hold fall classes are moving towards partial or total online education models—which, given social distancing guidelines, won’t allow for typical campus organizing.
Regardless of what happens, college students are facing an unprecedented situation this fall, and regardless of where they end up, they won’t be meeting in large groups.
So what does this mean for the country’s most progressive—and precarious—voting bloc?
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There’s absolutely reason to worry that less people will be voting, even putting aside the factor of decentralized campuses. Voter registration is already down nationwide because of the pandemic.
And while the majority of states allow online voter registration, only 21 allow same-day voter registration—and many of the places where registration is facilitated, such as DMVs, are currently shut down or considered nonessential.
This already startling decline in registration rates is particularly concerning when it comes to the college student voting bloc. Voting is habitual: If someone votes once, they are far more likely to keep voting for the rest of their life.
College is often the first place young people vote—hence why civic engagement campaigns and voter registration drives are such a common sight on college campuses. And recent history has shown that college students are voting more than ever before: Their voting rates doubled between the 2014 and 2018 midterms.
So how will decentralized education affect college voter turnout in the upcoming elections? Nancy Thomas, director at the Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, which conducts the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, is concerned for a whole host of reasons.
“Students are less likely to vote if they vote by mail or absentee,” she said—quite concerning in a time when people are encouraged to leave the house as little as possible.
Thomas said young people tend to see voting as a social activity—something they do with their friends, often on the way to or from other social engagements. In the absence of a traditional social college environment, potential college voters are less likely to actually make it to the polling station.
In the middle of a pandemic, the expansion of vote-by-mail seems like a logical solution to the problem of social distancing—but voters face significant barriers to accessing absentee or mail-in ballots in many states. These difficulties are compounded for college students, who may not yet know where they will be living come November.
Furthermore, Thomas said, students tend to have low “yield rates”—meaning their turnout rate is low, compared to their registration rate. This could be because the earlier people register, the less likely they are to turn out for the actual election.
“The closer they register to the election, the more likely they are to turn out,” said Thomas.
Add to this the perplexing variety of voter ID laws and registration rules that students who move states to go to school must reckon with, and you have a system designed to discourage voter turnout from younger populations.
Several youth-oriented voting organizations are already altering their organizing strategies to address the pandemic, putting out information about online voter registration and helping students register to vote online, if that is an option in their state. But the question remains: Will digital advocacy be enough?
Between the constant uncertainty about their educational prospects, the potential pressures of living at home with their parents, and the amount of active voter suppression measures already taking their toll on primary election turnout, there’s a fair amount of concern that college voters won’t be exercising their right to vote in an election that is particularly crucial.
And while there’s been a swell of activism led by teens and young adults in the wake of June’s anti-police brutality protests, will this kind of energy be devoted to actionable voting-oriented causes?
Civic activism and voting rates among young people may be on the rise, but despite recent years’ progress, youth still remain the age group with the lowest voting rates nationwide.
How Can We Turn Out the Youth Vote?
So, with November fast approaching, and no end to the pandemic in sight, what can be done?
Nancy Thomas believes that academic institutions need to recognize the power they have, and use that power to promote voting among their students.
“Faculty have the most consistent and direct communication line with students,” she said—and as such, they have a duty to encourage their students to vote.
The responsibility goes all the way up, says Thomas: “College presidents need to step up and say, ‘I’m rooting for my students.’”
Advocating for democracy should be a primary goal of these institutions, she says, if they want to call themselves advocates for education—and as such, they need to actively advocate for students’ voting rights.
This is the purpose of education, after all, she says: College have a duty to empower and enfranchise their students.
“Democracy is not partisan. The purpose of higher education is […] also to ensure a thriving healthy equitable participatory and ethical government. And that’s why colleges and universities have academic freedom. If they aren’t using it for that purpose, then they don’t get to keep it. I don’t see this as a choice — our job is to educate for a healthy democracy.”
At the end of the day, the COVID-19 pandemic is merely highlighting the plethora of issues that exist around voting in the U.S.. As Thomas says, “Voting is extremely and unnecessarily complicated in this nation.”
Unless elected officials commit to making fundamental changes to the way we do elections in this nation, we will keep ending up in situations like this—and the gulf between our elected officials and the public they’re meant to represent will keep growing.
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