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COVID Forces Activists To Rethink College Campus Voter Registration

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Usually, college campuses are fertile ground for voter registration groups, teeming with young people who have never voted before. But as colleges and universities bring students back during the pandemic, activists have found themselves trying to navigate COVID-19 protocols just a few months before the 2020 election.
“We used to be at Pitt and making sure we were at a table outside of a dorm during move in and making sure kids were getting registered to vote,” said Sarah Eagan of NextGen America, a progressive group focused on youth turnout. “The back-to-school program has always been when we get our most voter registrations and our most contacts with folks, so we’re still attempting to emulate that digitally.”

Eagan said the group has turned to messaging students on Instagram to make sure they know how to register, as well as spreading the word in Facebook groups for incoming first-year students. She said it’s hard to tell exactly how effective digital outreach has been so far, but based on primary turnout, she thinks their strategy is effective. The group texted young voters ahead of the June primary to make sure they voted by mail and returned their ballots in time to be counted.

“We know these nudges – that continual ‘Hey, this is when the deadline is’ or ‘Hey this is an election change that you should know about’ – it works,” she said.

Those registration numbers can be crucial, especially in a swing state like Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump won by about 44,000 votes four years ago.

In State College, the Penn State University Student Democrats plan to start doing in-person and socially distant voter registration after the two-week, university-mandated quarantine is over.

“In-person events used to be our bread and butter,” said PSU Dems President Jacob Klipstein. “In the past, we kind of did an ambushing-students style….where if you're sitting [outside on campus], we'd go out and we registered you to vote.”

Klipstein said the group plans to give volunteers masks, gloves, sanitizer, and paper towels to wipe down clipboards and pens.

"We think it's a really important way to make sure that everybody is registering to vote,” he said. “But it's definitely going to be a bigger challenge and has been in years past because I think less people will want to volunteer in person.”

But while the coronavirus has thrown a wrench in nearly every aspect of how elections typically work, Eagan sees benefits too. Instead of a four-day Get Out The Vote drive on campus, they have a month to make sure students sign up to vote by mail.

“It’s just more people we can contact,” she said. “Kids are going to feel so much more isolated on campus than they would have before. So if someone’s reaching out to you, caring about whether or not you’re going to vote on campus, we usually get pretty positive responses.”

But many colleges have brought students back only to send them home after a coronavirus outbreak occurs. Klipstein knows that’s a real possibility on his campus too.

“There’s a chance that the university will go completely online in the next couple weeks and a bunch of students will leave,” he said. “These are just all the challenges that we’re navigating. But we have a plan and we’re going to start using that plan on a day-to-day basis until circumstances change.”

The deadline to register to vote  is Oct. 19, and the deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 27. You can do so online at votespa.com.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.
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