PIRG New Voters Project: Mobilizing Students During COVID-19

by on July 21, 2020

Boosting Student Turnout for November

Young people are fired up. They’re going to protests and signing petitions. 83 percent (CIRCLE study) believe they have the power to change the country. We need to make sure they take that energy and enthusiasm back to campus this fall. Whether they’re mobilizing for Election Day or continuing to push their communities for progress on a broad range of issues; in an online world, young people are uniquely positioned to be able to organize their peers. So, what is the PIRG New Voters Project and how are we going to do that?

The PIRG New Voters Project works on over 100 campuses across the country to activate the largest voting bloc in the country. Young people continue to be underrepresented in our democracy, so we work to make sure every student has the opportunity to have their voice heard in our elections by building a culture of civic engagement on college campuses. We engage students, faculty, and administrators to build lasting systems of voter engagement for the long term. Since 1984, our field based, non-partisan effort helped to register over 2 million young people and make over 3 million Get out the Vote contacts reminding young people where, when, and how to vote. We have tested new field models to ensure we are running the most effective civic engagement program possible. One study of our program showed that 76.3 percent of the voters we helped to register turned out to the polls, among the highest rates of all non-partisan voter registration efforts. 68.8 percent of voters we helped to register were brand-new registrants, making the project one of the most effective ways to bring new voters into the electoral process.

PIRG New Voters Project student activists find new ways to organize during COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped universities and other long-entrenched institutions across our country. With many colleges replacing in-person classes, at least in part, with online learning this fall, the effort to recruit and mobilize college students is shifting online. We know that peer-to-peer voter mobilization is the best way to increase participation. Young people are also uniquely set up to use online communication — email, text, social media and more — to encourage their peers.

Developing Student Leaders and Diverse Coalitions

We believe in amplifying the voice of young people, giving them the tools and skills to take their energy and passion and turn it into concrete change. This summer, the PIRG New Voters Project trained more than 700 student interns to turn out the youth vote and make sure students are voting safely.

This fall, by combining the work of that team of interns with the work of our student chapters and professional organizers we are going to be building a diverse coalition of student groups, faculty, and administrators to reach as many young people as possible, while using digital tools, relational organizing apps, and, for our New Voters Project, our online voting center StudentVote.org to reach more students and help them register to vote by mail and make a plan to vote safely. Student interns and organizers are worked on over 100 campuses to build and develop diverse coalitions – from the Michigan NAACP Youth and College Division to the University of Florida Panhellenic Sorority Conference; and from the University of Massachusetts Republicans to the University of North Carolina College Democrats.

Mobilizing Youth

While the Student PIRGs often work on a broad range of issues from addressing the climate change crisis to the high cost of education, this fall our top priority is the PIRG New Voters Project.  We will help register young voters, make GOTV contacts, and  work to remove barriers to voting that young people face.

Voter registration is the heart of our program, because we know that helping someone register to vote is the single best thing we can do to ensure they turn out to the polls. We know that campuses that employ a handful of tactics can help to register up to 15% of their campuses. This fall we’ll work to increase that percentage by implementing the following tactics.

  • We are asking University Presidents and Student Governments to send out all campus emails with a link to StudentVote.org. We know that an all campus email can help register up to 10% of the campus to vote when we combine it with our visibility tactics.
  • We are asking our campus leaders to record video messages on the importance of registering to vote and how to use StudentVote.org so professors can include the videos in their webinars and we can post them online.
  • We are asking to guest host online classes in which we will walk people through registering to vote with StudentVote.org in real time.
  • We are organizing large voter registration drives around key dates like first year orientation, welcome week, and National Voter Registration Day on September 22nd

Once students register to vote, we will make sure they turn out to vote. Get out the vote outreach will become even more important as many students will try to navigate new voting rules and vote by mail for the first time. In order to increase the likelihood that young people cast their vote we are using the following strategies:

  • Educating young people about navigating the vote by mail process, including how to set it up and key dates
  • Making sure our outreach is timed with key dates in the vote by mail and voting process so young people don’t miss any required steps
  • Organizing large online events around key dates like Vote Early Day on October 24th

Our current situation as we navigate the new reality of the coronavirus might mean we need to keep engaging in social distancing for the long-term. As we head into the fall and towards the general election, we should be prepared to conduct our elections in a way that doesn’t also lead to increased risk of getting the coronavirus. We have been retooling our fall plans should the situation continue as it is now. We’re looking to refine best practices this fall by:

  • Implementing a mail program for states that do not have online voter registration so we can mail people their voter registration form with a stamped envelope so they can sign and mail into the county clerk’s office.
  • Getting buy-in from campus leaders to run a virtual civic engagement program by including voter registration and voting in their online classes, having our staff teach civics classes online, moving involvement fairs online.
  • Testing virtual recruitment and campaign rates.
  • Working with the state 501(c)(3) tables, local county election officials, and Secretaries of States to increase access to registering to vote online and voting by mail.

As we head towards August, the usual excitement and anticipation of a new school year has been turned on its head. The pandemic, the resulting instability of the economy, the heightened awareness and tension around racism have all created more of a sense of apprehension and anxiety than we’ve seen in a long time. The good news is that students working with the PIRG New Voters Project will continue to be on the forefront of social change and while they might look and feel different, the tools of organizing and making a difference are timeless.

Andy MacDonald is Executive Director of the Student PIRGs

Filed under: National Politics