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‘The enthusiasm is there’: College students push through obstacles to cast their votes

Elizabeth Quirmbach (right) registers Ayuka Sinanoglu, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Madison last month outside of the university's Memorial Union.STEVE APPS/Associated Press

No voter registration tables, no get-out-the-vote concerts, no political club meetings, except on Zoom.

Election season on college campuses is usually defined by a togetherness that, much like the rest of campus culture, has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. But despite the obstacles, many students are more determined than ever to cast ballots in this election — and activists in Boston and nationwide are finding innovative ways to boost turnout.

“The enthusiasm is there; people are seeing the importance of this election,” said Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, which promotes and tracks college student voting.


Early-voting data show historic participation by young people so far. It is unknown at this juncture how many are in college, but advocates still find the news encouraging.

In battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, early votes cast by young people already exceeded the 2016 margin of victory in that state’s presidential race, according to research by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, also at Tufts. With the presidential race expected to be close in those states, they have the highest potential for young people to swing the results, a center analysis said.

In Florida, for example, 434,000 early votes have already been cast by people ages 18 to 29, compared to 135,000 in 2016.

Still, there are indications the pandemic might be hampering the college vote. Although young voter registration this year exceeded 2016 levels in most states, registration among the youngest voters, ages 18 and 19, is lower in 16 states than four years ago, according to data from the center.

But despite the difficulties of remote learning, Thomas said, students have found creative ways to encourage their peers to cast ballots, like distributing slide decks to their professors that they can display on the screen before class begins. The slides give information about how to register to vote or find your polling place.


“What we are seeing is challenges because of COVID, and then innovations to overcome those challenges,” Thomas said.

Many voting advocates hope young people will make the connection between the historic levels of activism that took place over the summer, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people at the hands of police, and the ballot box.

“What we are trying to do... is help [college students] understand that full trajectory. That you can be out protesting, and now you can vote and be heard in that way, and then after the election you can stay engaged,” said Michael Burns, national director of the Campus Vote Project.

Student volunteers say many of their classmates have made that link.

At Harvard University, a new program aimed at increasing civic engagement is on hyperdrive in the final days before the election. It began last year with an initiative that gave first-year students an opportunity to vote when they picked up their ID card and dorm key on move-in day.

This year, the program has hired 12 undergraduate fellows to contact every member of the student body individually and make sure they are registered to vote and help with any issues. Out of the approximately 5,200 undergraduates, somewhere between 500 and 750 experienced problems, said Kevin Ballen, a junior who co-chairs the Harvard Votes Challenge.


Some ballots have not arrived, election offices aren’t answering their phones, and some states have complex requirements, such as mandating that a ballot must be notarized, he said.

“It’s just these most ridiculous processes ever,” Ballen said. “Even after making a plan, students are still running into challenges, unfortunately.”

To help students out, the fellows went so far as to place voter registration forms and absentee ballot request forms in mailboxes for all on-campus students from states without online processes. They also put two stamps in the mailboxes of on-campus students from states that don’t provide paid-postage ballot envelopes.

“Rather than doing a request system or something based on need, we wanted to make it universal, to limit any barriers,” he said.

In other parts of the country, similar efforts are underway. In swing states especially, student leaders say they understand how important it is to help make sure their classmates vote.

“There is definitely a sense of duty and commitment to vote,” said Harrison Feinman, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania who is director of a student-run program called Penn Leads the Vote.

At Penn, they are navigating challenges including about 200 mail-in ballots that were mistakenly mailed to a dorm that is closed this semester due to the pandemic. The university picked up those ballots and mailed them to the addresses where students are studying remotely, Feinman said.

In Wisconsin, the law requires a specific type of ID card to vote that many students do not have. The University of Wisconsin-Madison agreed to create a compliant ID for students, but it has been hard for people to pick them up because of the pandemic, said Kathy Cramer, a political science professor who co-chairs a committee designed to foster voter engagement on campus.


To overcome that hurdle, the university devised a way for students to print out the ID cards on their own. But that requires a printer, yet another barrier for many. Still, more than 1,000 people have downloaded the printable IDs, Cramer said.

“People are doing what they need to do in order to vote; that’s pretty clear,” she said.

The Wisconsin committee is also employing social media to reach students and encourage them to vote, Cramer said. Several students also created a podcast about the election, and they hired a comedian to make brief videos that got traction on YouTube.

“We are just trying anything we can to generate excitement and interest that does not require face-to-face contact,” she said.

In Boston, colleges are using many of the same strategies. Boston University and Northeastern are among schools that have given students access to TurboVote, a website that keeps track of all 50 states’ rules for voter registration and voting by mail. There are also polling places on both schools’ campuses.

BU students whose home states require ballots to be notarized can get that done at the Dean of Students’ office.

Student activists said that if there is a silver lining to all the challenges, it is that the pandemic has drawn attention to myriad obstacles to voting that have long existed in this country, especially for young people.


“All these things have already existed. It’s interesting that it took this for people to realize it,” said Jack Swanson, a Harvard junior who is a member of a group of students from schools across the Boston area that is urging their college administrators to make Election Day a campus holiday. The students were motivated by successful efforts elsewhere in the country but so far most schools in Boston have not followed suit.

Swanson said that might have seemed like an unprecedented request before the pandemic, but over the past eight months, schools have dealt with many unprecedented situations and made historic changes to every aspect of college life. He hopes that will carry over into an effort to make it easier to vote.

“The argument that the administration has, that ‘We can’t do that, it’s different; it hasn’t been done before,’ — that’s just not as powerful anymore,” he said.