How grassroots organizations are getting young people to vote — even in a pandemic

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The pandemic has forced grassroots political organizations to shift their voter turnout strategies, a monumental task given the number of hurdles to accessing the vote already in place. Moreover, the voters that are among the most difficult to reach, register, and turn out — young voters — will likely play an enormous role in deciding who the next U.S. president is. On Election Day, all eyes will be on the youth vote.

Historically, younger voters have lower turnout rates. Even this election cycle, young voters haven't hit the polls in the high numbers pundits expected; on Super Tuesday, for example, low youth voter turnout left their supposed favorite candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the lurch. But in the general election, Gen Z and millennial voters will comprise nearly 40% of the electorate, and turning out these voters will be crucial for candidates hoping to win in contested states like North Carolina and Georgia.

"We really took notice with the record youth turnout in 2018," says Carmel Pryor, a senior director of communications at the Alliance for Youth Action, a network of organizations focused on youth organizing and civic engagement. "Now, finally, that old trope [of] 'young people don’t care' no longer applies. Young people are ready for change and are on the front lines of making that happen," Pryor tells Mic.

The Trump administration's response to coexisting crises — climate change, coronavirus, police violence, corruption, and the intentional sabotaging of electoral systems among them — has galvanized voters who might have stayed home in years prior. However, even though some new faces may be ready and eager to vote, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll have access to the vote. And that's where state-level voter participation organizations come in.

These organizations on the ground aren't just fighting this year's crises, they are battling the legacies of systemic voter disenfranchisement. In Texas, where the grassroots operation MOVE Texas is working to mobilize thousands of young people, organizers are specifically battling against the impact of the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. Simply put, there are fewer physical polling locations, especially in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color, meaning that voters have to wait in line for hours in order to cast a ballot. In Miami-Dade County, meanwhile, organizers with Engage Miami are combatting decades of disinvestment in communities. And across the country, organizers are pushing back against the fallacy that young people don't care about politics. In fact, that couldn't be further than the truth.

"What we found in our work in young people, first and foremost, is that young people are motivated by issues. They don’t identify as being with one particular party over the other," says Clarissa Unger, director and co-founder of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, an organization that mobilizes college students to the polls. In other words, young people care deeply about political issues — they just don't care about partisan fighting.

The Students Learn Students Vote Coalition is partnered with MTV's +1 the Polls, a national campaign to turn out the youth vote in this year's general election. Why "+1" the polls? Studies show that peer pressure increases voter turnout, so the idea is that you can and should bring a friend — or two, or three — to the polls. Their message is that bureaucracy is boring, but voting doesn't have to be. "Overall our campaign is aimed to get first-time voters to tune in and turn out. ... We at MTV feel that given our legacy, we see this as an absolutely important part of our brand and what we stand for in the world," MTV representative Max Zorick tells Mic.

Students sitting on the floor of a polling station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, on Election Day in 2018. [ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images]

College-aged voters and voters in their 20s want to engage, MTV believes, but the country has gotten more prohibitive about who can access the polls. Between restrictive and unnecessary voter ID laws, confusing registration requirements, and convoluted vote-by-mail processes, young people have to overcome a lot in order to make their voices heard in an election. The other problem, Zorick says, is that since the 2010 election, over 1,500 polling locations across the country have closed, many of them in battleground states, and many of them on college campuses.

In-person voting booth access is just one concern going into this year's pandemic election. As state boards of election transition their voting systems to meet the safety requirements of the pandemic, like social distancing and sanitation mandates, political leaders and courts alike have stepped in to make it a little easier to access the vote. For instance, a Tennessee judge suspended a mandate demanding that first-time voters (which includes a majority of young people) cast their ballots in person. In September, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed legislation overturning a provision in state law that required absentee voters to provide an excuse for voting by mail. But these are just two states among 50, each of which have different election laws, pandemic provisions, and registration deadlines.

Organizations partnered with +1 the Polls, like Engage Miami and MOVE Texas, are critical for cutting through the noise. Grassroots organizations help voters make sense of confusing state laws that may prevent them from engaging with the electoral system. These organizations also provide real-time registration and voting access solutions specifically designed to meet the needs of young people.

One example: While the overwhelming majority of states have online voter registration, Texas is not one of those states. In a non-pandemic year, MOVE Texas would train on-the-ground organizers to conduct in-person voter registration on college campuses. Of course, this year that's a non-starter. Charlie Bonner, the communications manager for MOVE Texas, tells Mic that instead of in-person registration, this year the organization mailed out 400,000 voter registration forms to young voters across the state. MOVE Texas organizers then called each of those potential voters to walk them through the process of filling out the form, and additionally paid for postage so the voters wouldn't have trouble mailing it back.

Whether it's because young people are forced to sit at home now, or are particularly motivated because of the current political climate, the efforts are wildly successful. This year, MOVE Texas has registered 33,000 young voters — up from 25,000 ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. That's 33,000 new people who could shape the results of congressional races, city council runs, and down-ballot items.

Local elections in particular can be dramatically changed by increased turnout. Bonner tells Mic that in an Austin district attorney runoff election this year, for example, under-30 voters made up largest voting bloc, which is huge given that local elections are typically where voter participation — especially from young people — drops off. Bonner attributes the shift to the racial justice protests, which have illuminated the influence of district attorneys, sheriffs, and mayors in deciding police budgets and sentencing laws. "Following all these protests, people knew that's where they can make a difference," Bonner says.

Gilbert Placeres, the organizing director of Engage Miami, says that in Miami-Dade County, the organization is seeing a post-pandemic bump in voter registration as well. In 2018, the organization registered about 7,000 young people; this year that number has more than doubled.

Florida is a notorious swing state that will play an outsize role in deciding the outcome of this presidential election. But it's likely not just young people who are registering at record rates. According to The New York Times, ahead of Florida's voter registration deadline on earlier this month, the state website crashed after more than 1 million registrants per hour created what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) called a "bottleneck."

Placeres tells Mic that the coronavirus pandemic "really heightened the stakes." Engage Miami organizers, who have gone completely remote in the wake of COVID-19, are hearing during their phone conversations with young voters that they are overwhelmingly concerned about climate change and growing economic inequality. Voting is their way of doing something about these crises, and it's also a way to push back against the lack of attention that's typically given to the youth vote. "With young people there's a lot of avenues for people to take advantage and suppress the vote," Placeres says. "Folks do not want the youth vote to come out."

Engage Miami is also working to defend the in-person polling locations that they organized and fought for in 2018. Just four years earlier, in 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, outlawed early voting sites at state universities, which not only discouraged voting but made it near impossible to get to the polls for those without access to a car. "We live in a place where public transportation is abysmal," Placeres says. This, oddly enough, is another way where the pandemic-motivated push for voting by mail has aided the youth vote, because young voters can more easily cast their ballots from home without worrying about access to transportation.

In 2020, there's been overwhelming talk of "generational" occurrences: a generational pandemic, the largest civil rights movement in a generation, climate change consequences that could devastate the next generation. One way to ensure the future of the country is by elevating the voices of the people who will be around to see it. That's what drives organizations like Engage Miami and MOVE Texas, which may have had to change their methods thanks to the pandemic, but sure didn't abandon the fight.