Perhaps more than ever before, youth activism and political engagement are on the rise. But due to a set of unique challenges, including the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there is uncertainty about whether young people will finally secure the representation that they are capable of.
This Sunday marks 100 days until the general election. From now until November 3, efforts to empower young voters — America’s largest group of potential voters — will be crucial in determining the outcomes of every race, from the presidency to local offices.
According to recent polling from Tufts University’s College Center for Information and Research (CIRCLE), COVID-19 has been a major driver of this uptick in youth participation. Nearly 80 percent of young people (ages 18-29) said that the pandemic made them realize the extent to which politics impacts their daily lives. And despite the health, economic and social crises raging throughout the United States, youth voters feel a sense of optimism: 83 percent believe they have the power to change and shape the future of the country.
The recently-launched New Voters Project aims to harness this movement to turn out the youth vote. Over the last several months, we’ve seen young people closely following state and federal elections, encouraging their friends to vote, attending demonstrations, signing petitions, and using their social media platforms to raise their voices. Over the last two months, over 8,000 students in 15 states across the country have volunteered on our campaign, registered to vote, and pledged to vote safely with the New Voters Project.
But in order to translate this energy and excitement into votes at the ballot box, we have to continue breaking down barriers to youth voting — including some that were created by the onset of the coronavirus.
The most significant barriers to youth voting include a lack of knowledge about where and how to vote, and a lack of experience with online voter registration and mail-in ballots. CIRCLE’s poll reveals that 32 percent of young people aren’t sure if they can register to vote online in their state, and a quarter of those who answered yes or no were incorrect. Additionally, less than a quarter of youth have experience voting by mail, which is the safest way for every voter to cast their ballot during the pandemic.
Fortunately, most students will be able to register online and vote by mail. Most states currently have online voter registration (39) and no-excuse absentee voting (34) — meaning any eligible voter can request a mail-in ballot for any reason. States have also taken steps to encourage even more voting by mail this election cycle in response to the coronavirus.
But alongside these necessary policy changes, states and advocacy groups must also conduct a robust education campaign about voting by mail. If not, given the numbers in the CIRCLE poll, a large segment of the country’s population may be left out. Educating people — especially those who are more likely to be unfamiliar with the process — on how to vote by mail is a vital step in securing representation for younger, minority and vulnerable populations and helping to ensure that their voices are heard.
In that vein, from now until Election Day, the New Voters Project is working on more than 200 college campuses in more than 15 states, with the goal of registering over 100,000 new voters and making over 250,000 get-out-the-vote contacts this summer. CIRCLE’s previous research attributes the substantial increase in youth voter turnout during the 2018 midterm election to get-out-the-vote operations made by campaigns and organizations.
We know that students are more likely to vote when another student asks them to, so our peer-to-peer engagement is critical to this effort. CIRCLE found that building personal relationships with new and potential voters is the key to successfully tackling the persistent challenges of disproportionately low youth voter turnout. The New Voters Project is working with new and existing vote coalitions and building support for statewide reforms, including automatic voter registration and vote by mail.
This ongoing contact with young voters should not only establish voting as a societal norm, but also serve as an educational tool to navigate the process. Walking young people through the steps of registering to vote at StudentVote.org and conducting follow-up calls will ease them into the world of online voting and encourage them to spread awareness among their friends.
Since many colleges are shifting to online instruction in the fall, there is also concern that the inability to conduct typical campus voter registration efforts will depress turnout. But young people are uniquely proficient in using email, text and social media to get information and organize their peers. Since online communication is now an essential aspect of social life for America’s youth, critical information about registering and voting online must be readily available on a wide range of platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and even college websites.
The New Voters Project strives to not only educate young people about their voting options in the face of a pandemic, but also start a chain-reaction of peer-to-peer engagement. If we’re successful, we can help ensure that every individual gets a say in determining the future of the United States.