Outreach Group Pushes For College Students Displaced By Pandemic To Vote By Mail

May 19, 2020

The Allegheny County Elections Division has been sending vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the June 2 primary, but those applications may not reach every voting bloc.

The coronavirus forced many college students to finish the spring semester online, and many have moved home and no longer live at the Pittsburgh address attached to their voter registration.

Since the 2016 presidential election, NextGen PA, which focuses on growing the youth vote, registered 15,564 people in Allegheny County, and about 90,000 voters across Pennsylvania.

“We understand that our college students are probably not going to receive the ballot application because they’re not currently at the addresses that they were registered at on Pitt or on CMU,” said NextGen Pennsylvania state director Larissa Sweitzer.

Sweitzer said the Allegheny County Elections Division advised NextGen that students call the Elections Division and ask that their ballot be sent to wherever they are residing during the pandemic, if that address is different than the one they used to register to vote.

“We’ve decided to re-text all of the individuals in our young voters demographics across Pennsylvania, and specifically in Allegheny County, and advise them to call the county Board of Elections to request a new ballot application be sent to their current address,” she said. “We hope the county creates an easier way for this request to be done rather than calling the county Board of Elections, but the best we can do now is educate the Allegheny County young voters on this process.”

Sweitzer said NextGen has had success with texting young voters in the past. In the 2018 midterm elections, 60 percent of the people the group registered and targeted turned out to vote. The group has a goal of registering about 40,000 young voters this year, which is roughly the margin that Donald Trump won the state by in 2016.

It’s unclear whether students will be able to return to campus in the fall, if colleges and universities will be forced to continue online classes. But lawyers say students registered in Allegheny County will still be able to vote here, even if they’re not physically here.

“This sort of temporary and especially involuntary disruption to their residency should not interfere with their ability to continue to vote from Pittsburgh,” said Philadelphia lawyer Adam Bonin, who specializes in election law. "College students are all, under Pennsylvania law, allowed to treat as residences either their college residence or wherever home is.”

“They’ve been displaced by a pandemic,” agreed Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh. "They still believe they’re a resident, so I guess I would tend towards I don’t think it’s a fraud as long as you only vote once.”

Heidelbaugh is a Republican who hopes to challenge state Attorney General Josh Shapiro this fall.

The Allegheny County Board of Elections announced its new voting plan in April to limit the spread of the coronavirus by pushing mail-in voting. The Board of Elections also voted to drastically cut the number of locations to vote in person, from 1,323 to fewer than 150

The deadline for applying for a mail-in ballot application is May 26.