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College Students Could Sway Ohio’s Election, But COVID-19 May Hurt Registration Efforts

Ohio State College Republicans make phone calls for the Trump campaign in September.
Ohio State College Republicans
Ohio State College Republicans make phone calls for the Trump campaign in September.

Handing out flyers. Accosting fellow students in between classes. Handwritten signs and decorated tables on the oval. That’s what voter outreach on campus used to look like. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more like this Zoom call.

"Why do y’all think it’s important to be an informed voter?" Alyssa Johnson asks the virtual group. "Feel free to think about it, or unmute and share why you think it’s important, or pop it in the chat!" 

Johnson works for Ohio State’s Office of Student Life, and lately she’s been spending a lot of her time on video calls with student organizations or classes. 

"We’ve lost that in-person ability to register students in the class and bring that form to the board of elections, so we’ve really had to beef up our FAQs and our information in our presentations about how to register to vote, and then allow for time to register to vote while we’re still virtually in their class," Johnson says. 

Even in a typical election year, turnout for young voters tends to be lower than other demographics. This year, many are concerned COVID-19 could dampen voter outreach efforts on college campuses.

Ohio Voting Guide: What To Know About The 2020 Election

Luckily, students are tech-savvy. Posters in the Ohio Union and A-frame signs with QR codes across the university direct students to a website with registration information – Ohio's deadline to registerfor the general election is Monday, October 5.

Credit Courtesy of OSU Votes
A sign with a QR code on Ohio State's campus.

Not everyone is taking a digital-only approach, however. College Republicans like Ohio State student David Kalk have been knocking on doors – with precautions like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer – since May.

"What we do is knock on the door, put the literature on the door, and step more than six feet back, and that way we can have those same conversations with voters and they can do it in a safe way, and our volunteers can be safe as well," Kalk says. 

In-person versus online outreach have fallen roughly along party lines. At nearby Denison University in Granville, Matt Nowling with the College Democrats says their efforts on campus largely follow the national party's efforts.

"A lot of our strategy has been online because that’s the safe thing to do… and smart thing to do," Nowling says. 

A key part of that strategy involves relational outreach, or “friend banks.”

"With college students and young people especially, often times the messenger is way more effective than the message," Nowling says. "If your friend reaches out to you, you’re more likely to take action."

College students can register to vote using their campus address, or vote absentee from their home address. That means students get to choose where they want to vote.

While some schools are holding in-person classes this semester, some students aren’t on campus due to the coronavirus. That highlights an issue that Granville resident Paul Jenks has been fighting for a while.

"I do want them to vote, but I want them to vote where they really live," Jenks says. "And that was reinforced recently when the virus came along and the university sent them all home… and that wasn’t here."

Jenks and others believe that college students shouldn’t vote on local issues like school levies if they aren’t taxpayers. Such pushback is especially prominent in college towns like Granville, where the Denison student body is more progressive than the town itself.

Otterbein University political science professor La Trice Washington says the youth vote turned out about a decade ago, when there was a ballot measure to allow alcohol in some notoriously dry Westerville bars and restaurants.

"Largely the reason that shifted was because students in the area actually changed their voter registration," Washington says, laughing. "It was an issue that motivated them, it was a social political issue that they see a direct correlation to impacting their life. They can change the outcome of an election."

But beyond local alcohol sales, Washington says the youth vote is hard to motivate – even during a critical presidential election year.

"Young people are reacting to the fact that they don’t believe policies are crafted to them or their not a specific target audience, but the reason that happens is they’re not a heavily dependable demographic," Washington says. 

Political analysts like Washington are not that concerned about the impact of the pandemic, because youth turnout is historically low regardless. But Washington says there's hope that issues like the summer's racial justice protests, the state and federal Supreme Court, and even the economic recession will get young people to the polls.

If they do, she says, it could change everything.