The youth vote faces ‘enormous’ challenges in 2020. Columbia is helping to save it.

By Alexandra Yetter, Senior Staff Reporter

This year, Columbia will be participating in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and competing against other colleges for the highest voter turnout and registration rate in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. File photo.

Over the span of a few months, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin has had to re-imagine Columbia’s voter outreach initiatives three times—once to expand the effort, once after a global pandemic hit campus and once again for hybrid courses in the fall.

“This, once again, puts Columbia College at the forefront of colleges that really embrace civic education and the idea that students should vote,” said Bloyd-Peshkin, an associate professor in the Communication Department, who has pioneered the college’s voter registration campaign over the past year.

This time last year, Bloyd-Peshkin was introducing a voter registration system at the college where faculty in the English and Creative Writing Department could be trained to teach their students to register to vote in “Writing & Rhetoric” courses. With help from this system, approximately one-third of freshmen registered to vote in Fall 2019, Bloyd-Peshkin said.

To scale the initiative, Bloyd-Peshkin planned to bring voter registration to First Semester Experience or “Big Chicago” classes, which are required for new students and often already have elements of civic engagement, she said.

But now that the majority of Fall 2020 “Big Chicago” classes are hybrid—where a portion of students rotate in-person instruction every few weeks to maintain social distancing—voter registration outreach had to shift gears again.

All “Big Chicago” classes will now have a Canvas module comprised of a video presentation on all necessary registration and voting information; an auto-graded quiz to ensure students understood the material; and access to resources and personal assistance from Bloyd-Peshkin’s team of student workers, which she calls “voter registration geniuses.” Links to information on voting will be available in all classes other than “Big Chicago,” as well.

“It’s not ideal—ideal is one-on-one [interaction],” she said. “But this is about as close [we] can get in a pandemic.”

ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge

Bloyd-Peshkin is also responsible for Columbia’s recently announced participation in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, where the school will compete in the Chicago and Illinois Campus Voting Challenges against other colleges in three award categories: highest voter turnout, most improved voter turnout and highest rate of voter registration.

Adam Gismondi, director of impact at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, said friendly challenges are just one way schools can grow their voting base by making voting celebratory and getting students excited about the election.

Colleges’ student voter turnout is tracked by the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement through the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. After an election, NSLVE provides schools that signed up with a free report breakdown on their students’ voting trends, such as how many students in a particular major voted, Gismondi said.

Based on NSLVE data, which typically takes a month to collect, ALL IN will be able to determine which schools won the challenges.

The national nonpartisan organization ALL IN began in 2016 to increase institutionalized voter engagement on campuses, said Ryan Drysdale, associate director of the organization.

Drysdale said historically low voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was due to low engagement on campus and from political campaigns. But national campus outreach and a charged political climate contributed to the highest turnout of young voters in the 2018 midterm elections, he said.

Serene Arena, a graduate student in the civic media program who works with Bloyd-Peshkin on Columbia’s voter outreach, said the challenge contributes to the college’s civic engagement mission.

“It’s great to be a Columbia student and know the school values civic engagement as part of creative exploration,” Arena said. “We are all impassioned young people who are here to start changing the world. … Voting is one of those ways.

Challenges to the youth vote

Gismondi said remote courses and the continuing coronavirus pandemic present an “enormous challenge” to young voters, many of whom may not be in the same state they are registered to vote in by November or won’t have the resources to vote by mail.

“A lot of people are affected but college students are a particularly tricky population for this election season primarily because of the pandemic,” he said. “All schools should be telling students, no matter what, to prepare to be agile and that they may have to change their registration.”

Gismondi said faculty will be pivotal in engaging students in the classroom by making space to talk about election issues and offering voting resources because they are a guaranteed liaison in remote or hybrid courses.

College presidents also have the power to advocate for students’ voting rights, he said. Administrators are dealing with multiple crises at once, Gismondi said—a financial crisis, a social crisis, a public health crisis and a logistical crisis.

“It’s part of our job to remind college leadership that they can’t ignore this issue either,” he said.

Many colleges tout democracy and civic engagement in their mission statements, Drysdale said, which is why they need to remember voting initiatives in the face of multiple crises.

One way ALL IN is working to engage college voters outside the classroom is through the project Campus Couch Parties, which will be rolled out in August. The project will allow anyone on campus to organize virtual events to train volunteers on how to text others about registering to vote and requesting absentee ballots, Drysdale said.

Work is also being done at the congressional level to increase youth voter access, said Jesse Barba, the senior director of external affairs for Young Invincibles, a nonprofit focused on political engagement among young people with an office based in Chicago.

Barba said Young Invincibles has been working with U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to pass the Help Students Vote Act, H.R. 5564, introduced in May 2018. Part of the bill requires colleges to send messages to students alerting them to voting information, deadlines and registration forms.

Despite the challenges young people face at the ballot box, many experts and activists predict improvements from the 46.1% turnout in 2016 and 36% turnout in 2018 among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Part of that uptick will likely be due to important issues on young peoples’ minds, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, health care, student debt and the climate crisis, Drysdale said.

But college outreach remains pivotal, and Columbia doesn’t plan to just hand out pens, Bloyd-Peshkin said.

“We have a pretty politically aware student body. They notice that it matters who’s in the White House, it matters who’s on the Supreme Court, it matters who your congresspeople are,” she said. “Our students are very motivated to vote. What we need to do is make it easy for them to vote.”