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Community Organizing and Youth Engagement During the Pandemic

We spoke to community leaders about how they’ve adapted their strategies and messaging, embracing digital platforms to reach youth despite COVID-19.

Following historic levels of youth voting and engagement in the 2018 midterms, many observers and stakeholders have been focused on the potential for youth to have a high electoral impact in 2020. As of October 23, 2020, more than 5 million young people (ages 18-29) have already voted in the 2020 presidential election. 

Previous CIRCLE research has found that community organizations and nonprofits have a major role to play in reaching new voters. Voter registration, education, and outreach has historically happened at in-person community settings and events. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent limitations on in-person events, many organizations have had to shift their approach to engaging young voters. 

To further understand how young people and the organizations who support them have navigated this disrupted voter engagement landscape, we spoke directly to nonpartisan organizations across the country that work to register and mobilize young people. Below, we present a few examples of what they told us. 

The Challenges of Adapting to the Pandemic

Public health guidance encouraging social distancing, as well as the closure of high schools and universities across the United States for much of 2020, have limited the physical events at which organizers can contact young people and assist them in registering to vote. “Normally it’s boots on ground, you are out with a clipboard, you are out talking to people... but obviously the pandemic has put a wrench in that,” said Rachael Collyer, Program Director of the Ohio Student Association. 

Organizations that have continued limited physical outreach have adapted their efforts to respect local guidance and public health concerns. In Virginia, canvassers are dropping voter education literature at voters’ homes and then following up with phone banking, says New Virginia Majority’s Political Director Maya Castillo. In other states, organizers have had to closely track pandemic conditions as they plan youth engagement. In September, Boulder County, Colorado, banned gatherings by individuals ages 18-22 for two weeks due to rising cases of COVID-19. Prioritizing an approach that respected county regulations, New Era Colorado’s Michael Carter stated “If any location saw increasing rates of COVID two weeks in a row, at a certain threshold we stop organizing there to prioritize the safety of our organizers, and that did happen in Boulder. We are pausing organizing there but still doing digital organizing and ads.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also shaped organizers’ messaging. In light of concerns over in-person voting and recent changes in many states to facilitate voting by mail, organizations have ramped up their efforts to communicate the logistics of casting a ballot from one’s residence. Educating young people about the logistics of mail voting is crucial—our 2020 pre-election poll found that only 24% of youth report having voted by mail before and Black youth are less likely to have seen information about voting by mail.

“We are heavily focused right now on vote by mail; we are going to hit a million phone calls pretty soon, starting from March over the course of the entire election cycle since we went remote,” said Rebecca Pelham, Executive Director of Engage Miami, a nonpartisan organization that engages young people in South Florida. “We are emphasizing to people that they have options. There are drop off boxes at their early voting sites, and also in Florida different counties have different early voting dates and times so we provide county-specific information.”

Previous CIRCLE research has also highlighted disparities in knowledge and familiarity with online access to voter registration. In our 2020 pre-election poll, we saw that 32% of young people said they did not know if they could register to vote online in their state, and another 25% answered yes or no but were incorrect. Some organizers worked to fill this knowledge gap and help youth navigate the process.

“We have online voter registration, but you must have a state ID, and for the out-of-state students I work with that can be a mess. [When] trying to figure out how we can get paper registration forms to students, the obstacles start mounting. Most young people don’t have printers, and a lot of colleges are not opening libraries or making it more difficult by having students reserve times,” said Libby Watson of The Washington Bus. 

Approaches to remote organizing have also differed depending on the electoral law context of each state. In Texas, which does not offer online voter registration, MOVE Texas implemented a voter registration by mail program, ultimately mailing 400,000 voter registration applications with postage-paid envelopes to unregistered young people across the state. 

“Our team has also done a lot of phone banking and text banking to chase those applications and let young people know that, if they want to vote in November they have to fill this out. That has been integral to both building relationships with those young voters and getting those forms filled out,” said H. Drew Galloway, Executive Director of MOVE Texas. As of October 23, 2020 more than 750,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 29 had voted early in Texas, and several counties in Texas have already broken early voting records.

Making the Most out of Online Organizing and Social Media

Some organizations shared that shifting to conducting organizing efforts with online platforms  has presented opportunities. Libby Watson, Colleges and Community Coordinator with The Washington Bus, described this transition: “We immediately switched to having everything online, which went surprisingly well. It allowed us to ramp up our outreach and we can have volunteers from all over Zoom in.” The Washington Bus is a Seattle-based organization that operates across Washington State to increase youth civic engagement. 

“We have actually been able to expand who can come to our meetings. No longer do people have to figure out transit or drive from one part of the county to another to come organize with us—you hop on the Zoom link,” said Rebecca Pelham.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, young people have increasingly shifted to engaging with political content online. In an effort to meet young people where they are, youth organizations have made similar adjustments to continue having conversations about issues and participation in civic life. “We are really seeing digital engagement change. We did an Instagram Live with (singer and songwriter) Lauren Juaregui yesterday and we had 4,000 people watching and talking about local elections, and I don’t think we could have gotten 4,000 people in a room,” said Rebecca Pelham, Executive Director of Engage Miami. 

In 2020, organizers are also using social media to provide clear information about voting on familiar platforms that reach millions of youth—including young people of color and other groups who have not been traditionally reached by parties and campaigns. “In our social media and Instagram, we know that it is younger people, and Spanish speakers, and English speakers. So we have content in our language and slang, and that is clear,” said Viri Hernández, Executive Director of Poder in Action, a Phoenix-based community organization. Mississippi Votes, an organization led by young people that encourages civic engagement, hosted virtual Presidential debate watch parties and “Census Sip and Paints” to encourage the completion of the 2020 U.S. Census. 

Many youth-led organizations have adopted or expanded their use of newer platforms like TikTok to reach the youngest eligible voters, and for good reason: more young people (28%) reported seeing information about the election on Tik Tok in 2020 than on Twitter in 2018 (20%). Regarding TikTok, Niko Howell, an organizer with Student PIRGS at the City Colleges of Chicago said: “It is reaching people directly. People who wouldn’t go to a protest but would sit there and watch a video and listen about things they haven’t before.” 

For young staff members of these organizations, digital organizing may also provide benefits. According to CIRCLE polling, 64% of young people said that posting political media online helps them feel their voice is more powerful, and over three in five youth responded that they feel more represented as a result of creating media about politics or social issues. 

Promoting Youth Engagement Beyond the Ballot Box

In addition to voting and electoral engagement, this year young people have been focused on issues like racial justice and on helping each other and their communities during the pandemic

“Civic engagement for us is a spectrum, and voting is a piece of that. But also showing up to make comments at city council meetings, disruption and protest, all of that is part of our civic engagement,” said Viri Hernández of Poder in Action. Of the young people CIRCLE surveyed (ages 18-24), 27% said they had attended a march or demonstration this year, an increase over the 16% that responded the same in 2018. Rebecca Pelham, Executive Director of Engage Miami, described this energy: “Protest is really exciting because it makes power visible. You can’t see 1,000 votes but you can see 1,000 or 2,000 people in the streets and know that you are together with them.”

In 2020, 79% of young people said that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that the decisions of political leaders impact their everyday lives. That has also shaped young people’s interest in civic engagement. “Because of COVID’s effects on K-12 schooling, we are talking about the importance of the superintendent of public instruction.” said Libby Watson of The Washington Bus. “[Young people] want to know who their legislator is, how to lobby, what issues will be part of the session.

In addition, because many poll workers are usually older (and therefore at higher risk due to COVID-19), many election offices across the United States have also expanded efforts to recruit younger poll workers to support in-person voting during the pandemic. In our pre-election poll fielded this summer, 33% of young people surveyed said they might be willing to work as a poll worker if given the opportunity. 

“We started our poll worker recruitment across the state just two to three weeks ago and in that short amount of time we have recruited just over 1,250 poll workers,” said H. Drew Galloway of MOVE Texas. “We are seeing young people recognize the importance of this moment and plug in in so many different ways.”


Author: Peter de Guzman