A woman poses while people line up in the rain to vote at an early stage in Madison Square Gardens in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City, New York, the United States, on October 26, 2020.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Weeks before the fall semester began, Lindsay Maggioncalda, a senior at Duke University, found out that she would run out of space on campus. The university decided to limit on-campus placement to sub-classes to reduce the potential for the spread of coronavirus. Maggioncalda opted for the semester given the possibility of a purely online training.
At that point, she hadn’t given any thought to how her decision might affect her eligibility for election in the 2020 election.
Maggioncalda had registered at her duke address for half-time in 2018. The Bay Area native looked forward to voting in the North Carolina presidential election, believing her vote could be more influential in a battlefield state than in California. Now gone for a semester, she didn’t know if she would be eligible to vote in North Carolina this fall.
After extensive online research, correspondence with student organizers, and two phone calls to Durham County’s electoral authority, Maggioncalda secured a postal vote.
“On campus, people will give you all the information you need,” said Maggioncalda. “Since you are not on campus, you really have to figure out how to vote for yourself.”
The coronavirus pandemic has created additional barriers to choice for young people, a population not known to be in large numbers. Only 43% of citizens ages 18 to 24 voted in the 2016 election, compared to 61.4% of eligible citizens who voted overall, according to the US Census Bureau.
Despite the Covid-19 challenges, young voters are poised to be a key force in the 2020 elections. The data suggests record turnout by the group.
A national poll of Americans, ages 18-29, released Monday by the Department of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found that enthusiasm for voting in 2020 was on par with 2008, a historic choice for youth participation when Barack Obama entered the White House with a Democrat in Congress. This year, Democratic candidate Joe Biden leads Republican President Donald Trump with 63% to 25% of young voters most likely to vote, according to the poll.
“Young people either could not show up and win a race in favor of almost always a Republican candidate. Or they could show up in large numbers and help a Democrat win,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Research Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.
The role of universities
Kawashima-Ginsberg and colleagues have identified states and counties where young voters can have a critical impact on the results of the presidential and congressional elections. Locations include historic swing states like North Carolina, which were critical to Trump’s victory in 2016, as well as areas that have become increasingly competitive, like Georgia.
According to CIRCLE, Wisconsin is the state where youth can have the greatest impact on the presidential election. Trump won the swing state by less than a percentage point in 2016, ending Wisconsin’s seven-election series in which he supported Democratic candidates.
Universities have historically played a role in youth voter turnout, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg. Research by Tufts found that districts with a high student attendance played a pivotal role in Wisconsin’s 2018 gubernatorial race, in which Democrat Tony Evers defeated reigning Republican Scott Walker by just under 1 percentage point.
Since many schools are using virtual or hybrid lessons this semester, the mobilization efforts of the students had to adapt. Even if students are on campus that semester, facilities are not always open the same way, which can affect students’ ability to get voting requirements such as college IDs.
Wisconsin is one of the toughest states for non-home study students to vote because of voter identification laws. At UW-Madison, the state’s largest university, 46% of the 31,654 students are non-Wisconsin. This emerges from the university’s enrollment report for autumn 2020.
“There are things that are directly related to Covid that make it a little difficult for students from other states to exercise their voting rights here,” said Kristin Hansen, Wisconsin coordinator for the campus vote project at the impartial Fair Election Center.
Tamia Fowlkes is a junior at UW-Madison and an organizer at Badger Votes, a campus-wide initiative that helps students cast their ballots in the 2020 election. She has run virtual events and social media campaigns to get the vote. While there have been significant challenges this election season, she said she has also seen an unprecedented amount of energy related to peer voting and social issues.
“As college students, we live in this state nine out of twelve months of the year. The people who make guidelines in the state will ultimately affect the budget that affects our university,” said Fowlkes. “It goes beyond what happens when you elect a president.”
With the coronavirus surge in Wisconsin, voters face another hurdle. The solutions vary for students in quarantine. UW-Milwaukee, for example, is setting up sanitary taxis to take students to the roadside and back to vote, Hansen said. Others leave it up to the students to figure it out for themselves.
A boost of energy
Early personal consultation is in full swing across the country. In Wisconsin and North Carolina, residents can register to vote and cast their vote at the same time, a popular option with young voters. According to local election data updated Tuesday, Duke’s on-campus polling station had the highest turnout in Durham County.
“The energy is definitely there and you can see that it’s different from other elections,” said senior Jessica Sullivan, who leads Duke Votes, a student electoral coalition. “People are so engaged and excited about it and really want to make sure their vote counts.”
By last Wednesday, according to Tufts, more than 3 million voters between the ages of 18 and 29 had cast their votes in the 2020 elections. The number of young voters has far exceeded that of 2016. In North Carolina and other states, early votes cast by young people have already exceeded the 2016 profit margin. However, the percentage of young people in total voter turnout is low compared to other age groups.
“Young voters tend to vote later and vote in person rather than by mail. As we get closer and closer to November 3rd, we will continue to find that the percentage of votes rises to the level we have never seen before,” said Rachel Weber, spokeswoman for the progressive youth election initiative NextGen America.
Many young people, a generation inspired by the youth-led coalitions of the anti-armed violence group March for Our Lives to join the climate-focused Sunrise movement, have adopted a model of activism that emphasizes movement politics.
“The energy that we’re seeing from young people right now isn’t just a slip,” Weber said. “It will continue beyond November 3rd.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly spell Rachel Weber’s name.