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Pandemic Upends Voter Engagement Playbook for College Students

During a normal year, college campuses can be buzzy places in the weeks before a presidential election. But as the country navigates both a reckoning on race and the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 isn’t exactly normal, and ways to engage with this voting bloc have shifted.

One in 10 eligible voters this November will be members of Generation Z, according to Pew Research Center. Half of the 18- to 23-year-olds surveyed by Pew said someone in their home got a pay cut or lost a job due to COVID-19. A survey of roughly 1,000 students by education tech company Course Hero reported that nearly one-quarter of respondents said the pandemic impacted their decision to vote, while 19% said the Black Lives Matter movement did the same.

But the pandemic has caused much of the traditional collegiate campaign playbooks to be upended. Gone are time-honored benchmarks such as politically minded speakers dropping in to talk with enthusiastic students, or groups posting up at tables in an attempt to catch people hustling by in busy student unions.

“It’s difficult,” admitted Kent State University student Ethan Lower.

The 20-year-old oversees the nonpartisan Kent State Votes. The Kent chapter started in 2018 and is one of many campus initiatives nationwide that help promote civic education and voting initiatives among young people.

In light of the pandemic this year, the chapter shifted its outreach to be more targeted, including launching text, email and social campaigns on voter registration and how to create a voting plan. Other online efforts included providing information about absentee and early voting.

“As many organizers know, in-person events and in-person contact is the most successful method,” Lower said. “It doesn’t mean it’s the only successful method. But that communication and that flexibility is really important, so to not have that is hard, and encouraging people to join virtual events is just as hard.”

According to recent polling from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, 63% of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said they’ll “definitely be voting” in November’s presidential election, up from 47% who said the same in 2016. The majority of those young people indicated the economy is their top issue, a shift from pre-pandemic findings.

For some, higher education institutions are the cornerstone of where they learn more about the country’s democratic process and cultivate their political views. Colleges and universities are legally required to make a “good faith” effort to distribute information about voter registration. But creating civic engagement opportunities above that have long varied from place to place.

“On the really above-and-beyond campuses, it’s the math faculty that are talking about gerrymandering,” said Adam Gismondi, director of impact at Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. “It’s the engineering faculty that will have conversations about which cities have sound bridges and which ones don’t, and how that’s an issue of equity and power and society. It’s the university president empowering students and sending out messaging around an election season, but also denouncing things that maybe are counter to democratic norms or democracy itself.”

Gismondi’s group researches the intersection of colleges and democracy, something that’s evolved since student-led protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Historically, voter turnout among young people is low. But that may shift this year.

In more than a dozen states, the amount of early and absentee votes cast by voters between the ages of 18 and 29 already far exceeds the amount of ballots cast at the same time in the 2016 presidential race, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. More than 3 million young people nationwide reportedly had cast their votes as of mid-October.

Students at Kent State are “1,000%” more interested in following current events compared with previous years, according to Stephanie Smith, associate professor in the College of Communication and Information.

“Prior to 2016, I never heard students have a discussion about the Supreme Court nomination process,” she said. “And now they’re very focused on it. They’re very focused on ‘where’s the nomination, what’s going on, should the court be packed, should it not?’ So the stakes became higher.”

Smith and her colleague Paul Haridakis, interim director of Communication Studies, hosted a recent online “teach-in” called “Don’t Hate — Debate (And Vote).

In a world that can be filled with Zoom fatigue, they weren’t sure what the response from the university community would be, but there was so much interest that they turned presenters away from the daylong session.

“So much of the dialogue, this important expanding of our thinking, really occurs also in informal ways at the university,” Haridakis said. “Obviously in this environment, in a pandemic, when there are fewer students on campus, we wanted to do it in a virtual way.”

He added, “That is really what a university is about — what occurs inside the classroom, but also what occurs outside the classroom.”

But outside of the classroom right now, things can be messy. Navigating through partisan waters can be overwhelming in a social media world filled with memes and misinformation, especially for those who may be first-time voters.

“They care passionately about ideas,” Smith said. “But that does not necessarily help prepare them to do the rigor that needs to happen before an election.”

She continued, “We’ve been emphasizing down-ballot (races), understanding the entire ballot, and understanding the issues that happen. And the way politics and polarization affects life in general, and then obviously, affects elections.”

Smith also pointed out that in addition to Kent State Votes, the campus has active chapters of College Democrats and College Republicans. But she said some students are working to bolster civic engagement on their own, too.

Izzy Stewart, a Kent State U. student

That includes Izzy Stewart. She said she has helped roughly 480 people register to vote since 2019, mainly other students. She estimated her count based on the people she helped in person prior to the pandemic and the ones she’s since walked through the process via text or FaceTime.

The 19-year-old said she’s always been civically minded, but it amplified when she got to Kent State and learned more about the events of May 4, 1970, when four students were killed and nine others were wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a campus demonstration.

With just days until the election, Stewart has turned her nonpartisan efforts to encourage her peers to actually vote.

“Basically, I just go with the thought of, ‘Hey, we’re all humans. And this is what’s happening. And this is how voting can help you,’ ” she said. “No matter what party you’re for, no matter what beliefs you have, I think that everyone deserves to have a voice.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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