In an ordinary election year, college campuses would be brimming with political energy by October. Civic nonprofits like Campus Vote Project would be sending representatives into classrooms across the country to encourage young people to vote. They’d set up tents in the middle of campus to help students navigate registration forms. But in this extremely not-ordinary election year, the quads have gone quiet. As students have moved online, so too have the civic groups hoping to get them to the polls. Rather than intercepting students on campus, Campus Vote Project is creating TikToks and hoping the right hashtags will help them land in young people’s feeds.
Despite the pandemic, researchers and organizers say they’re cautiously optimistic about the youth electorate, a demographic notorious for its low turnout rates. National Voter Registration Day—which this year essentially amounted to a digital blitz across news feeds, timelines, and inboxes—saw record levels of engagement from young people. By the end of September, registration among 18-to-24-year-olds already exceeded 2016 levels in most states with available data.
Having to go mostly digital may have helped in some ways. Traditionally, youth voter registration efforts have focused on college campuses as centralized hubs of newly eligible voters. But even in normal times, most young people can’t be found there. In 2018, less than half of all 18 to 24 year olds in the US were enrolled in college, with even lower percentages among Black and Hispanic youth. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of that age group uses social media like Facebook and Snapchat. Redirecting attention and resources to these platforms is allowing electoral engagement campaigns to reach a wider audience of young people.
College Vote Project, for instance, used to geographically target social media ads for students in specific college towns. Now, they’re aiming their ads at all people under 30 in the states where they’re active. “Doing it this way will reach college youth who have been displaced, as well as non-college youth,” says Mike Burns, the nonprofit’s national director. “Since we’ve already made the content, and we’re already trying to put messaging out there to explain it to young people, it just made sense.”
There are plenty of reasons why a young person might not have the information they need to register or to vote. Campaigns tend to reach out to young people only episodically, and usually target those who are already registered. Registering isn’t always easy, and rules differ from state to state. And even in 2020, politics aren’t discussed over dinner in every household, according to Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at Tuft University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). It’s young people without these relationships or existing networks who often slip through the cracks.
But polling from the 2018 midterms shows that there is a way to reach the individuals who don't receive any traditional outreach: more than 25 percent of young people reported hearing about that election exclusively through social media.
Snapchat, which is particularly popular among Gen Z, sees an opportunity this cycle to not only fill the void left by the lack of in-person voter drives, but to reach a more inclusive audience of young people. Since September, its users have been able to begin the registration process directly within the mobile app through TurboVote, a tool created by the nonpartisan organization Democracy Works. So far, Snapchat has helped register more than 1.1 million users to vote in this election, more than half of whom would be casting a ballot for the first time.
“When the political or nonprofit world focusing on young voters is talking about the youth vote, they’re usually speaking around college-educated young people in this country,” says Sofia Gross, Snapchat’s public policy manager. “I think we also recognize our power in really reaching out to civic deserts, where people are not reached by political campaigns or civic nonprofits.” Snapchat’s long-term value, she adds, will be in providing those forgotten young people with outreach, community engagement, and the tools they need to mail in a ballot or get to the polls.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, for their part, have also launched prominent voter information hubs on their platforms for 2020. TikTok recently announced it would launch its own in-app guide to the election and partner with civic organizations like the Campus Vote Project and Ballot Ready to bring users reliable information.
After a historic turnout in the 2018 midterms, there are some signs that 2020 could see significant numbers of young voters, even amid a pandemic. It’s a high-stakes election with a historically unpopular incumbent in the White House, and a sweeping social justice movement has energized people across the board. CIRCLE researchers are seeing unprecedented online activity around voting not only from campaigns and political organizations, but also celebrities, influencers, and other nonpolitical actors. Gen Z also appears to be more politically active. More than a quarter of people ages 18 to 24 this year have reported participating in a march or demonstration, compared to just 5 percent leading up to the 2016 election.
“The confluence of people who are talking about voting right now is quite amazing,” Kiesa says. “We’ve been working on this for a couple of decades now, and it’s hard to think of a comparison.”
Digital outreach only goes so far, of course. For one thing, all of these online registration tools require more proactiveness from users than, say, being approached by someone who will then walk you through the process. They also require reliable internet access, something many Americans still lack.
There are also complications to registering and voting brought on by the pandemic. Some college students, for example, have been put up in hotels by universities looking to expand living space, only to find that hotels aren’t accepted as permanent addresses by their election officials. Others have been forced to move around, as hotspots pop up. Some organizers fear Covid surges on campuses in the coming weeks could suddenly displace students just as general election voting gets underway, just as it did during the primaries.
Many states, at least, have finally made it easier to register to vote from home. And the organizers working to resolve these unexpected obstacles are energized, according to Mike Ward, vice president of voter engagement at Democracy Works. So are the young people they’re targeting, who continue to have their day-to-day lives upended by the pandemic.
“There’s an interest like one I’ve never ever seen, and particularly among young people,” Ward says. “I’m sure some people won’t vote this year because of challenges related to the pandemic. But I am even more sure that tons of people are going to vote this year that might not have voted in other cycles because this election is so deeply felt by so many people.”