TRENTON NJ: Although COVID-19 has reshaped the election landscape in 2020, as in the past, motivated young Americans are leading the efforts to mobilize their communities this fall, even with minimal face-to-face interaction on campus. On National Voter Registration Day (Tuesday, Sept. 22), college student leaders with NJPIRGs’ New Voters Project launched their fall campaign efforts to reach thousands of students over social media by organizing diverse coalitions of student groups on campus and holding virtual events to register and contact youth voters.
While traditional on-campus outreach has halted across most of the country, students are still focused on using personalized tactics to mobilize young people -- the largest potential voting bloc in the United States.
As of midday Tuesday, NJPIRG volunteers working with their campus coalition partners had already reached over 20,000 students across the state from all-campus emails sent by Student Affairs offices, text messages to friends, social media posts, and virtual class announcements.
“Voting is the most powerful way we can make our voices heard. The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the process, so we are building large, diverse coalitions on our college campuses to push for safe voting policies,” said Kavya Srivatsa, Statewide Board Chair for NJPIRG Students, and Senior Rutgers New Brunswick student,
“National Voter Registration Day is just the first step in our effort to turn out students this November.”
The goal of this year’s National Voter Registration Day is to increase participation in democracy by registering, educating, and activating students in the campus community.
NJPIRG launched the day with a webinar and a civic engagement panel with a variety of speakers including student leaders, campus staff and administrators, and public officials.
The over 40 attendees to the event heard first from New Jersey’s Secretary of State Tahesha Way, a huge champion of youth voter involvement. Way instigated New Jersey’s Ballot Bowl, a challenge to college campuses to engage in friendly competition to see which institution can turnout the most people in elections.
“Your generation has power if you choose to yield it,” said Way with regard to youth civic engagement, “you don’t have to wait until you are older to make your voices heard.”
In the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, college students turned out to vote at double the rate from the last midterm, according to a report from the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE), housed at Tufts University.
Nancy Thomas, the Director of the IDHE addressed student volunteers at a similar event held in MA today, “to all first-time and youth voters: You are an influential group, larger now than the boomers, who have been driving public policy for decades. Use your power. Vote!”
In New Jersey, almost 100 student volunteers signed up to join virtual National Voter Registration Day events happening on campuses across the state this week. These events planned by students coordinators are focused on “relational organizing,” which involves asking students to text friends and post a link to studentvote.org to update their registration and pledge to vote safely on their own social media accounts.
“The power of relational organizing can not be understated, especially in this virtual world,” said Harrison Chiu, Chief of Staff of the Rutgers Newark Student Government Association, “all the members of the Student Government Association at Rutgers Newark are prioritizing voter engagement to make sure that our student body is heard this November.”
NJPIRG’s efforts focus on peer-to-peer interactions to mobilize students to turn out to vote, but in this virtual world, campus staff and administrators are critical to achieving a high voter turnout.
At Rutgers University, the long-standing RU Voting coalition, which includes Eagleton Institute of Politics, Division of Students Affairs, and NJPIRG Students have helped demystify the voting process for students. The ruvoting.rutgers.edu website hosts a comprehensive list of resources including information about what will be on your ballot, a list of local news outlets in NJ that students can follow to stay updated on politics, as well as key dates and events related to the election.
In just the first few weeks of the fall semester, staff from all corners of the Rutgers campuses, including residence life directors, cultural groups, academic department chairs, faculty, and student-led organizations have helped to spread awareness about the elections and the upcoming voter registration deadline.
“If you want to be proud of the country that you live in, you have to vote,” said Nicholas LaBelle, President of the Student Assembly at Rutgers New Brunswick, “It’s up to us to lift up youth voices - and that starts with making sure everyone has the tools they need to participate in democracy.”
Although virtual learning has brought a number of challenges to building community on campus, there are plenty of faculty and staff on college campuses who are ready to spread the word and give student volunteers the platform they need to reach their peers.
“It is so important that even in the virtual world we are reaching out to students to register to vote” said Vice Chancellor Mary Beth Daisey at Rutgers Camden, “which is why today, we sent an all campus email to Rutgers Camden students with a link to help them get registered for the first time, or update their voter registration status.”
Throughout this week, and until the voter registration deadline on Tuesday Oct 13th, hundreds of student volunteers will help thousands of their peers register to vote, update their registration status, and create a culture of voting in their campus communities with the goal of doubling turnout in 2020 from 2016.
“Right now, young people are fired up — going to protests and signing petitions. We need to make sure we make our voices heard on Election Day as well,” said Srivatsa, “In an online world, young people are uniquely set up to organize others. It’s time we show the country that America’s largest generation votes!”