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The Pandemic’s Potential to Create a Lost Generation of Voters


— College students are a key voting bloc whose participation in this year’s election may be blunted by the public health crisis.

— Major efforts are needed to ensure that students know how to vote,  make sure their vote is counted.

Time is now to address student voting this fall

The United States’ 20 million college students are a significant voting bloc and have the capability of deciding elections.

For that to occur, first they must register to vote.

The best way to do this, and then to get these college students to actually vote, requires direct outreach. Traditionally, that occurs on-campus — something that COVID-19 has made particularly challenging this year.

“Dorm Storms” of registering student voters in their residence halls will not be happening.

For this year’s coronavirus campaign, new ways must be undertaken to find, register and educate these voters, and then to make sure their vote counts when they do so.

Given a recent survey finding that Joe Biden holds a 34-point advantage over Donald Trump with 18-29 year olds, if the 2020 presidential race is just as close in key states as the one in 2016, fewer students voting could keep the former vice president from winning a race he otherwise would have.

In 2016, over 50 colleges had more students than the presidential margins in their states.

Certainly, fewer college students voting could create the potential for dozens of down-ballot races to be influenced.

Not enough resources are being allocated to find ways to ensure students are registered to vote, and then follow through on voting. There is a danger that we might not even reach the previous 48% threshold of college students who voted in 2016.

The impact of a lack of students voting this November does not end in 2020.

Many college students register and vote during the one presidential election while they are at school. As voting in college leads to the habit of a person continuing to vote onwards, this will impact our civics for years to come.

Much needs to be done, and the window closes soon.

Expat voting provides a roadmap

One group of U.S. citizens always faces the challenges that this year’s college students face when it comes to registering and voting — Americans living abroad.

Expatriates always have to register remotely, get an absentee ballot, and ensure the ballot is received by Election Day.

This year, college students face the same challenges in needing to learn how to register remotely and then properly vote away from (or at) their family residence.

How do they register? In which state do they even register? Then, how do they vote? What do they need to do to request an absentee ballot, receive it, and return it so it arrives before the deadline?

Many 18-22 year olds, in college or not, have no clue.

When the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University asked youth if they could register to vote online in their state, one-third said they did not know, and one-quarter who said yes were incorrect. In addition, only 24% reported having voted by mail before.

A 2018 Fairfax County (Virginia) focus group found many college students who went so far as to take the initiative to register and get an absentee ballot simply failed to send it back because they did not know where to get stamps.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program provides voting assistance for U.S. service members, their families and overseas citizens.

Vote From Abroad, a non-partisan platform, helps U.S. expatriates by providing the information necessary for filling out federal forms related to voting overseas.

In fact, many U.S. citizens living overseas can even go to the U.S. embassies and consulates in their country and use the diplomatic pouch for free mail service from embassies and consulates to a U.S. sorting facility.

In their own way, colleges and universities, political parties, and NGOs such as the nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project need to help college students do just the same — and they need to be adequately funded to do so.

Obstacles exist for students after they register to vote

The United States Postal Service has been a hallmark of American society. Now we face a pair of unpredictable challenges to the postal system: a pandemic that brings operational and financial challenges coupled with presidential threats to the well-being of the Postal Service.

The understandable delays in the delivery of ballots due to COVID-19 could trigger a higher than normal incidence of mishandled or misplaced ballots. Voters will need to send in their ballots earlier this year than usual. They need to know that.

An NPR analysis found at least 65,000 absentee or mail-in ballots have been rejected this primary season because they arrived past the deadline.

Imagine how many ballots will arrive late when all 50 states and the District of Columbia vote on the same day, especially with some college students needing to mail their ballots from out of state.

Even when these ballots are received in a timely manner, mail-in ballots can be thrown out by a challenge from election officials with relative ease if they are marked incorrectly or if the signatures do not match — tactics used for a century in parts of the country to keep Blacks from voting in the face of federal civil rights laws guaranteeing the vote.

Local election officials can be biased against college students as well. As former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste (D) explains, these administrators sometimes sought to put obstacles in the students’ way when it comes to registering and then voting. The attitude was, “We don’t want kids who don’t pay taxes and won’t stay here once they graduate voting in our town.”

The same discrimination can occur with mail-in ballots that look like they are from a young person — especially one voting out of state. These ballots could be disproportionately discarded at higher rates for perceived discrepancies in their signatures without proper oversight.

The parties need to be prepared to deal with these specific challenges come Election Day.

And it’s not just the presidency that could be impacted.

The Crystal Ball downgraded the reelection chances of Rep. Peter DeFazio, a 17-term Democratic congressman in Oregon whose district contains Eugene (University of Oregon) and Corvallis (Oregon State University), because if those students don’t vote, his chances for reelection drop.

With fewer student voters, swing districts across the country might end up being red instead of blue.

The time is now

The integrity of the American electoral process requires ensuring the newest generation of voters register and then vote — and have their votes counted.

These vitally important voters have already been tested more than they could have possibly bargained for in the pandemic era and their inability to vote, or a mishandling of their votes when they do so, could easily alienate them for years to come.

We already know most schools will not allow the same type of interaction as in the past in terms of registering students to vote, if they are open at all.

What are we waiting for?

Joe Biden recently said that thinking about access to voting keeps him up most at night: “Making sure everyone who wants to vote can vote. Making sure that the vote is counted, making sure we’re all trusting in the integrity of the results of the election.”

We need a focused effort to tackle these challenges. That starts with a comprehensive plan to identify and address each and every potential pressure point in our system. And it must also include a focused educational effort to fully inform students, election administrators, and the general population to support those undertaking these initiatives.

And it needs to start now.

Thurgood Marshall Jr. and Steven R. Okun served in the Clinton administration as White House Cabinet Secretary and Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation, respectively. Marshall practices law in Washington and served as chairman of the Board of Governors of the United States Postal System. Okun serves as senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates based in Singapore and served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.