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  • Writer's pictureJack McAllister

Reinforcement Needed

How voter advocacy groups are prepared to keep young people engaged and motivated in the time of COVID-19

New York—

The United States is currently facing the most significant threat to its democratic process in recent history due to the COVID-19 pandemic; while New York State has seen its upcoming elections, and Democratic primary process, thrown into massive upheaval.

New York State, the epicenter of the virus in the United States, contains over 340,000 cases and over 27,000 deaths as of May 10, per the New York Times.

The state’s Democratic presidential primary has been postponed, cancelled, and reinstated to its previously-scheduled postponement date of June 23. The delays give voter advocacy groups such as the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and NYC Votes more time and flexibility to organize their digital efforts to engage with what NYPIRG Project Coordinator at CUNY’s Hunter College, David Khan, 26, describes as “the least active voting bloc in the country.”

That bloc, consisting of citizens aged 18-35 contains a significant number of college students. These students are the core group with whom Khan and Co-Project Coordinator Ayesha Schmitt, 22, engage on a daily basis in the interest of increasing active involvement in elections amongst New York’s underrepresented populations.

The group’s initiatives generally include in-person practices such as going to classrooms at the college with voter registration forms, holding “tables” to educate students on certain issues, and “clipboarding,” or canvassing. Schmitt noted that social distancing measures meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 “really does limit our scope,” continuing that many students need to be seen “face-to face to ensure they follow through on the things they say they’ll do.”

A robust roster of phone numbers is the basis for a majority of the action NYPIRG is taking to stay connected with students. Utilizing a combination of “mass texting and social media,” is, as Schmitt described, “in the digital age, all we really can do.” Text blasts include reminders to vote or to register, as well as calls to action for students to contact their elected officials regarding issues pertinent to NYPIRG’s platform. Students can engage with and learn more about NYPIRG on their social media pages @HunterNYPRIG on Twitter and Instagram, as well as their facebook page.

Another advocacy group, NYC Votes is the City’s official “get out the vote,” campaign

run by the New York City Campaign Finance Bureau (NYCCFB). The organization, independent from the Mayor’s office that Public Relations Aid William Fowler, 27, describes as “non-partisan by nature” will face similar struggles to NYPIRG, but are somewhat prepared thanks to existing outreach methods.

Beyond holding in-person voter registration drives and registration-centric “Day(s) of Action,” NYC Votes has a number of remote engagement practices used to engage what Fowler called “the city’s most underrepresented populations,” one of which is young people in their “teens and 20’s.” The organization runs ad campaigns on subways and busses as well as a physical “non-partisan voter guide,” mailed to every household with a registered voter.

Fowler detailed that a newly announced text-to-vote campaign allows individuals to sign up for text-alerts consisting of information related to local elections, while following a “pledge model.” Fowler cited research used by the NYCCFB stating “pledging to vote and setting a plan for when and how you’re going to get to the polls increases the likelihood of participating.”

Engagement efforts made by NYPIRG and NYC Votes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic have put them in a relatively prepared position when faced with social distancing. Both organizations have infrastructure to mass-text, email, and create targeted social media campaigns.

Despite tangible results of voter outreach efforts, evidenced by relatively high voter turnout rates in the 2018 midterm elections (up by 19.1% from the previous midterm elections in 2014, per NYCCFB’s 2019 Annual Voter Analysis report) New York still “dramatically underperforms in terms of voter turnout in comparison to the rest of the country.” Additionally, NYPIRG’s website describes New York as having, via figures from the U.S. Elections Project, “among the five worst turnout rates in the nation among eligible voters.”

Political Science professor at Hunter College and Democratic County Committee Person (NY 69 Assembly District and 64 Election District), Raven Brown, 40, has yet to see a youth movement in her specific district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Brown noted that they “don’t have a lot of young people participating, which is a shame,” and continued that efforts by the committee to engage young voters have resulted in “nothing effective.”

Brown did note in her classes she sees “young people who are politically active,” that are “more involved in movement based politics as opposed to party politics.” While youth participation in a New York's closed primary process has been uncertain, it remains to be seen if young voters will participate in elections with less media fanfare such as the state senate and borough presidential elections taking place on June 23.

New York’s “closed primary,” means that one must be a registered voter in a given party in order to participate, and may only vote for candidates running for their party’s nomination. In speaking informally with 30 college-aged students, 18 said they would vote for their party’s candidate in a general election, even if that was a different candidate than their first choice.

This leaves 12 potential voters who may not vote if their chosen candidate or movement, as professor Brown described, is not represented. These voters may require more personal, targeted engagement than possible given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Events like CUNY City Tech’s voter-registration fashion show that Khan participated in, tagline: “voting is sexy,” Khan said, will need to be put on hold for at least the spring and summer semesters during which the CUNY system transitions to remote learning.

The voting system faces extreme challenges relating to social distancing and the potential dangers of voting in person. It remains to be seen if the constant changes to New York's primary effect turnout on June 23, while there has been no word on November's general elections nationwide. The rapid, exponential growth of the virus and potential for a “second wave,” has made the status of in-person voting a looming obstacle for election organizers.

If images of people flocking to reopened beaches in Florida and California reflect citizens’ desires to relax stay-at-home orders, it’s possible voter turnout in November will exceed expectations despite the potential public safety risks.

Those interested can follow @NYCVotes on twitter, instagram, and facebook NYPIRG @HunterNYPIRG twitter instagram and facebook. Please comment below with your feelings on voting/democracy in the time of COVID-19

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