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What COVID-19 might mean for the college-student vote in Minnesota

Students are finding creative ways to organize during the pandemic. But disruptions caused by remote learning and campus closures could have a big impact.

Members of the Minnesota College Republicans shown campaigning for Tyler Kistner in Minnesota's Second Congressional District.
Members of the Minnesota College Republicans shown campaigning for Tyler Kistner, running for the Second Congressional Seat, and Zach Duckworth, who is running for the Minnesota Senate District 58 seat.
Courtesy of the Minnesota College Republicans

It’s this time of year, every election year, that student political groups on college campuses start gearing up to get classmates out to vote by holding meetings, tabling at student unions and covering school sidewalks with political chalk messages.

Those efforts are important in mobilizing the votes of college students, who are not known as the most reliable voters due to their inexperience — many are first-time voters — their busy schedules and their mobility.

This year, the pandemic adds a layer of unpredictability to turnout on college campuses, but campus political groups are working to adapt their activities in the hopes of reaching students wherever they are.

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Moving online

One core function of campus Democrat and Republican groups is holding meetings — often weekly — that introduce students to the political process and help them get involved.

Karly Hahn, the chair of Minnesota College Republicans and a senior at St. Thomas University, said the majority of College Republicans chapters in Minnesota have moved their meetings online, convening on Zoom instead of on campus.

She thinks there may be an advantage to online meetings in that it’s less intimidating for students who feel unattached to either major party to come to a meeting to try it out.

“There might be a lot of downsides to having everything virtual, but there are some upsides in that this lets some of those moderates, I think, feel a little bit more comfortable,” she said.

Meetings have also been moved online for many college Democrats groups, including the University of Minnesota, St. Olaf and Concordia, said Claire Anderson, the president of College Democrats of Minnesota and of the University of Minnesota chapter.

But it’s not just meetings that have had to adapt to the times. College Republicans have done some doorknocking, but on a modified basis.

“We’ve been really respectful: knock on the door, step off the porch, wear a mask even though we’re outside,” Hahn said. “If people aren’t comfortable, they don’t open the door. It’s fine, we just leave them some literature.”

Anderson said College Democrats have discouraged doorknocking activities, especially if they aren’t socially distanced, but have pushed things like phone banking and text banking.

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Getting out the vote

Even in normal years, voting presents more hurdles for highly mobile groups — including college students — said Nancy Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. That will especially be the case during this pandemic election year.

“College students are going to be among the populations that will be more oppressed in this election than average populations,” she said.

Many of them have never voted before, so the process of registering and going to the polls — or mailing or dropping off a ballot — isn’t familiar.

Minnesota has same-day voter registration, but college students who can’t find a friend to vouch for their residency and don’t have a utility bill in their name sometimes have trouble meeting the requirements to vote without pre-registering at their address.

Plus, Minnesotans are being encouraged to vote early or by mail if they can to keep polling places free of traffic, cutting down on COVID-19 risk.

But even that means registering, and then deciding whether to vote at home or on campus. Legally, college students are allowed to vote either on campus or back home, and are often encouraged to cast a ballot wherever their vote will count more.

In light of all that, campus groups are getting the word out to students that it’s important to have a plan to vote this year.

“At every meeting so far, we’ve said vote as early as you can. Request your ballot now. Mail it in early or drop it off early. That’s our biggest thing is just telling people to vote and helping them if they need help,” said Angie Bowen, of Minnesota State University Moorhead College Democrats.

MSU Moorhead College Democrats are urging students to vote in their home districts. They’re partnering with an organization called Sister District to elect more Democrats in local elections. Especially if they’re from North Dakota, which is across the Red River from Moorhead and more red than Minnesota.

“We’re really trying to focus on encouraging students to focus on their local races and to get involved in their local politics,” Bowen said.

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Effects on outcomes?

In some districts, whether or not students vote — or vote on campus or at home — could potentially affect the outcome of races, said Gina Countryman, a longtime GOP operative.

It’s not just the question of what registration drives and other campus activities are like this year, but potentially what enrollment looks like on campus — how many students have chosen to do a gap year, how many are doing classes online and have decided to live at home with their family instead of at school, Countryman said. A lot can happen in the weeks until Election Day, and if campuses, already seeing outbreaks, send students home, that could affect mail voting.

That’s an additional level of unpredictability on top of a group of voters that’s already unpredictable, often showing up in presidential years in much more force than midterm years.

On average, college students favor Democratic candidates, so it could potentially help Republicans’ vote margins if there are fewer student votes, particularly in some Minnesota districts.

Outcomes in legislative races like House District 14B in St. Cloud, Senate District 20 in Northfield and Senate District 5 in Bemidji could be affected by the degree to which college students vote there. In these college towns, representation can swing in presidential versus midterm years, Countryman said, something that could be amplified by the pandemic in 2020.

“College votes are just really volatile, these are usually people who have not registered to vote prior to attending college, they’re not already in the voter file. Voter registration drives are really big on college campuses and right now all those activities are kind of up in the air,” she said.

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Colleges can get involved

It’s important for colleges and universities to make a priority of educating students about voting, Thomas said. College instructors, who have the most direct contact with students on campus, should build it into their curriculum, whether it’s course material about the importance of voting, about how policy affects the discipline they’re studying, or just a reminder to get to the polls. Colleges should provide point people instructors can send students to if they have questions about how to vote, she said.

While the pandemic creates extra barriers for college students voting, Thomas said she’s not fatalistic about their turnout this year.

In data from 2018, voting rates among college students doubled from the 2014 midterm. Registration rates were higher in 2018 than during the presidential election in 2016, she said, and students these days are very driven by issue activism.

“I don’t think it’s an inevitability that college students are going to turn out at lower rates,” she said.