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student voting
Aiyana Edwards, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, is part of a national effort to improve voting rates among young people. She helps friends, classmates and other college students in Georgia register, check their registration, make a plan to vote, see a sample ballot and research candidates and ballot measures. Credit: Aiyana Edwards

When not in an online class, Aiyana Edwards, 19, who’s in her second year at Spelman College in Atlanta, can be found texting first-time and young voters, eager to empower her peers at the historically Black women’s college to vote for the people and policies that best align with the changes they want to see in their communities.

Edwards is a fellow with Rise, a national nonprofit that builds student advocacy campaigns, through which she learned how to mobilize new, diverse voters. Now, she helps friends and classmates, as well as other college students in Georgia, register and check their registration, make plans to vote in person or by mail, see a sample ballot and research candidates and ballot measures.

An aspiring civil rights lawyer, she recognizes that the language and instructions on the ballot aren’t always easy to comprehend. “That’s a strategy,” she said. “That’s a tactic to confuse voters.”

Voting can be complicated, especially for first-timers. But in a typical election year, college campuses brim with political activity: Students discuss key issues in the dining hall, professors rework their curricula to include topics of debate, and political groups set up tables on the quad. That usually helps counter the confusion.  

“I’ve been given the opportunity to reach out to my Black community and provide them with the feeling that they matter, that their vote is going to matter and that they’re valued — period.”

Aiyana Edwards, student and voter-drive organizer, Spelman College

This year is anything but usual, of course, and the pandemic’s ramifications for in-person civic engagement could make voting harder for young people than it already was.

In a recent poll by College Pulse and the Knight Foundation, more than 6 in 10 college students said they needed more practical information to get involved in politics. That’s particularly concerning for students of color, who were more likely than their white peers to feel that way: At least 70 percent of Black, Hispanic and Asian students said they needed more information, compared with 54 percent of white students. And according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University, Black youth are also less likely to be online, the new hub for politics during the pandemic, and less likely to have experience with voting by mail, one of the safest ways to vote this year.

Related: Getting rid of the ‘gotcha’: College students try to tame political dialogue

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the UNC Young Democrats planned to distribute 6,000 student voting packets on campus, with information about registration, mail-in ballots and early voting. But an abrupt coronavirus outbreak just one week after classes began in August derailed the chapter’s plans by ousting most students from their dorm rooms and shutting down many extracurricular groups.

Rupi Jain, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led the UNC Young Democrats as they moved most of their get-out-the-vote efforts online. Credit: Rupi Jain

“A lot of groups dusted off their hands and said, ‘We’ll pick up when Covid is over,’ ” said Rupi Jain, 20, a senior and the chapter’s president. But with Election Day looming, the Young Democrats had to pivot. “We aren’t really given that option. We have to keep going.”

So the organization moved most of its efforts online, harnessing the power of social media through its Instagram account and class Facebook groups.

“That’s been a good way to connect with the students who traditionally would’ve seen me screaming on the quad,” said Jain.

Early national data suggests that online registration work has been able to substitute for at least some field-based work, according to Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher for CIRCLE, at Tufts. However, he also cautioned that not all eligible voters are online. Around 1 in 12 people ages 18 through 29 don’t have stable internet access, per CIRCLE’s polling data; among Black people in that age group, the number is 1 in 8.

These young people are likely missing out on important information about student voting from their peers, who are no longer all together on the same campus. “The social element is really crucial when it comes to learning how to vote, and learning how to follow along with complicated and opaque election laws that are even more complicated and more opaque this cycle,” Lundberg said.   

Jain of the UNC Young Democrats said, “The pandemic did hinder our ability to reach students, but we turned that around and made sure we’re working twice as hard to reach students.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Young Democrats chapter distributes yard signs with the local Democratic party. Credit: UNC Young Democrats

By late October, the Young Democrats chapter had made 2,200 calls and sent more than 6,000 texts throughout North Carolina. It had also reached out directly to classmates in off-campus housing, as well as to student clubs, sports teams and Greek organizations representing a diverse group of peers. Jain and a large group of students had cast their ballots at their on-campus poll site.

Related: Students sick of ‘lip service’ from universities over racism

At the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, the UC College Republicans group is canvassing in person, while following the school’s coronavirus guidelines. But to increase access for students who are off campus or are social distancing, it has moved signature in-person events online or offered a virtual option.

“We’re having various degrees of success,” said Jason Sponaugle, 20, the group’s president, who’s in his third year of college. “People are not too enthusiastic about being on Zoom calls all day.”

Still, the 10th annual Great Debate — in which representatives from Republican, Democratic and Young Americans for Liberty student groups exchanged views on police reform, pandemic responses and affordable tuition — was online, and introduced new and young voters to each party’s positions.

The College Republicans chapter also considers mail-in voting “a legitimate form of voting,” said Sponaugle, and encourages students to take advantage of it.

“The pandemic did hinder our ability to reach students. But we turned that around and made sure we’re working twice as hard to reach students.”

Rupi Jain, senior at the University of North Carolina and president of UNC Young Democrats

Edwards, the student organizer from Spelman, also helps her peers in Georgia understand mail-in ballots. While voting by mail is the default method in much of the West (including Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Washington and several California counties), the South has the lowest rate of young people who have previously mailed in ballots, according to CIRCLE. In a recent poll, just 16 percent of Southern voters ages 18 to 21 said they’d had access to and experience with voting by mail, compared with 46 percent in the West and 20 percent in the rest of the country.

“Given the racial/ethnic composition of the electorate in Southern states and in different regions of the country,” the CIRCLE researchers wrote, “this highlights a potential challenge to equitable democratic participation this November.”

Just 8 percent of Black 18-to-29-year-olds voted by mail in 2016, compared with 20 percent of white voters their age who did the same, the researchers found. And at least 2 in 5 young Black people had never seen information about how to vote by mail or absentee ballot.

But Edwards said she was up to the task. “I’ve been given the opportunity to reach out to my Black community,” said Edwards, “and provide them with the feeling that they matter, that their vote is going to matter and that they’re valued — period.”

“That is the most humbling thing about this process,” she said.

This story about student voting was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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