Voter Registration Efforts Struggle to Reach College Students Off-Campus, Without a Clipboard

The leaves change colors, students change dorms, and clipboard-wielding young people descend on campuses to register college students in September and October ahead of any presidential election.

But voter registration strategies are among the many aspects of life that have been upended by the pandemic, forcing leading organizations to revamp their approaches on the fly during the most critical time of year.

"In Texas, we all have to think about this without online registration or automatic voter registration," said Charlie Bonner, communications director for MOVE Texas Civic Fund, which plans to register tens of thousands of college students in the state this month alone. "In a normal year, most young people are registering because someone came up to them with a clipboard at their university, a concert, or at the DMV, where the next appointment isn't until January."

This new climate of voter registration comes as The New York Times recently reported that the coronavirus was spreading through colleges and universities "at a frightening pace," linking 251 cases to clusters that began at fraternities, sororities and off-campus parties.

So while safety is an overriding concern, top organizations across the country know the fall is the best time to send their voter registrations into overdrive, something Democrats, who count on more youth support, depend on every cycle.

From August to October of 2016, nearly 1.8 million voters registered as Democrats, while 1.1 million registered as Republicans. Tom Bonier of TargetSmart, which conducts political research, said the unaffiliated voters segment skews toward younger people, who are more likely to vote Democratic.

In the context of the pandemic, voter registration "fell off a cliff," down 65 percent to 70 percent during the second half of March, all of April, and the first three weeks of May, Bonier said, before a resurgence in late May and early June in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

For its part, MOVE Texas is bulk mailing 400,000 voter registration forms to unregistered young people in the state, with its field team walking voters through the process on tens of thousands of phone calls, and paying for postage both ways. It's new campaign over the next six weeks to get thousands of registrations circumvents the lack of online voter registration by having voters go online to pre-fill out a form that the organization mails to you.

Organizations who do this work say the unprecedented voter registration environment has created a necessity for them to think outside the box and go where voters are, which includes digital platforms.

NextGen America, founded by former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is active in battleground states including Nevada, Iowa, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida, with a focus on young voters and voters of color.

Cognizant of the difficulty with in-person registration, their staff showed up virtually in the addictive Animal Crossing game as cute animals earlier this year, with one delivering a speech as a squirrel about the importance of voting. In Arizona, the team is doing digital organizing and giving the sell on voting within the popular dating apps Bumble and Tinder.

"College kids are sick of getting every text, email, and Facebook notification," Briana Megid, deputy national press secretary for NextGen America told Newsweek, of the challenge of digital organizing.

The group has looked for opportunities to safely conduct in person events, and is holding a "Donut" Forget to Vote takeover of a Nevada donut shop on September 22. It had planned to have a physical presence at the Iowa State University home opener that was slated to have 25,000 fans as well, but the decision to play the game in an empty stadium was made Wednesday, reflecting the ongoing challenge of in-person voter registration of college students.

"A piece of the challenge is young people are expensive, hard to find, and disregarded by campaigns," Megid said. "In most instances we're the first campaign that has made contact, the first point of education, so we don't want to spoil the opportunity, and we emphasize that it only takes a couple minutes."

Voter registration efforts are also targeting Latino students.

"There are challenges and more importantly opportunities to reach Latino voters who are returning to school this fall," said Eduardo Sainz, Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota, a national grassroots group which works to register Hispanics. The group seeks to pair its digital and in-person work together around the issues of climate change and immigration.

But Areli Alarcon, the president of the College Democrats UNLV chapter in Las Vegas, told Newsweek her campus is a ghost town, with no one clipboarding, and "really harsh" guidelines in place on in-person events. Her organization has moved its operations online, mostly using Facebook and Instagram, and her experience is a reminder of the new voter registration dynamic.

"Some clubs try to have a tent, but nobody stops by to chat because everyone is scared of COVID," she said, before citing the recent Democratic convention. "The way I see it, in-person events don't go with the Democratic platform. If the DNC didn't do it, we shouldn't."

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NextGen America used Animal Crossing for Earth Day events and to spread a message about the importance of voting. Courtesy NextGen America