In a typical April in a presidential election year, headlines would be dominated with stories of the race. This, however, is not a normal election year. Any news story that doesn’t mention COVID-19 feels incomplete: COVID-19 has infected every part of public life.
While it can be easy to disengage from politics amidst this pandemic, the 2020 election is more important than ever. The winner of this election will determine the tail end of our direct response to the pandemic, likely confronting issues about vaccine accessibility, antibody tests, and continued social distancing measures. Perhaps most importantly, he will face the fallout of months of economic shutdown. He will likely have to deal with catastrophic unemployment, a housing crisis, and an economy left in shambles.
In short, the 2020 presidential election is one of the most consequential this country has ever had. It is absolutely crucial that we uphold universal enfranchisement. Even amidst a pandemic, we must protect the people’s right to vote. Unfortunately, protecting this right will mean making the voting process more difficult to navigate. Increased complexity and a possible reliance on absentee ballots may disproportionately affect young voters, who have historically low turnout rates. With the potential power to sway the election in favor of the Democratic nominee, these young voters constitute an extremely significant electoral demographic. If young people are to fulfill this potential, however, we must ensure that newfound structural barriers to voting don’t depress our turnout rates even more.
The Importance of the Youth Vote
The large numbers of young voters, combined with our leftward political leanings, make us an incredibly important group in this election. Young voters are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican: among millenials, for instance, 59% are Democrats or lean Democratic, while only 32% are Republicans or lean Republican. Unsurprisingly, then, Hillary Clinton won the youth vote by 23 percentage points in 2016, and Barack Obama won it by 18 points in 2012. In the 2018 midterms, youth were 25% more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans in House elections. According to pollster Emily Elkins, voters who turned 18 in the last four years will likely follow this trajectory. Elkin argues that this group of young people, which includes most college students, is permanently disillusioned with Trump’s Republican Party, with 62 percent disapproving of his job as president.
This skew is significant, even more so because the number of youth voters means we could conceivably tip the election in favor of the Democratic nominee. With Gen Z-ers and millennials now constituting a third of the electorate, our potential impact can’t be understated. A multitude of eligible voters, however, does not necessarily translate to a multitude of actual voters, considering that young people generally vote at disappointingly low numbers.
New Barriers to Youth Voting
Young people historically have low voter turnout rates: Our average turnout rate for presidential elections, for instance, is between 30 and 45%. Part of this low number is explained by structural barriers to voting, especially those faced by college students who vote absentee by mail. The process of requesting and sending in an absentee ballot can be confusing and difficult, causing some students to feel overwhelmed and forego voting altogether. This is a problem that many organizations, including the Harvard Votes Challenge at Harvard College, have been working to address.
COVID-19 introduces innumerably more barriers to voting, particularly for young people. No one knows what the state of the pandemic will be in November, so young people cannot make a plan for voting. It is unclear whether college students will be able to go back to campus for the fall semester, meaning students registered to vote in their college districts may now be required to vote absentee. Social distancing measures may be in place in some areas, preventing many people from physically going to the polls. But no matter what the status of the country and the election is, we must, if we are able, continue to exercise our political voices.
Voting During a Pandemic
Though nothing is set in stone, there are numerous methods through which voting may take place in November. As we saw in the recent Wisconsin primary, voting in person is simply unsafe in the middle of a pandemic. There, the Supreme Court upheld in-person voting despite significant health risks and many people did not receive the absentee ballots they requested due to a backlog of requests. The fact that this decision was made online rather than in-person highlights that the Court was fully aware of the dangers of close contact and chose to disenfranchise voters anyway. The result of their ruling was a terrifying choice for Wisconsin voters: either go to the polls and risk the health of yourself and your loved ones, or stay at home and lose your chance to exercise your democratic right. We can’t be forced to face this bizarre choice for the general election: The importance of obtaining a result that reflects the true preferences of the American people is too high.
There are several possible alternatives to in-person voting this November. Universal mail-in voting seems to be one of the most popular forms of voting and is one that young people should become familiar with now. According to healthcare professionals, mail-in voting is the safest option because the risk of infection through paper is low. States could expand their current absentee voting requirements to allow everyone the opportunity to vote by mail, instead of requiring specific reasons to do so. This process would be similar to that of requesting an absentee ballot, just with fewer restrictions.
Unfortunately, students may already be overwhelmed by the process of absentee voting in a normal year, and may only be more so amidst COVID-19. If universal mail-in is the only safe voting option, young people who may otherwise have walked to their polling station on the day of the election might not plan to request and receive their ballot on time. Additionally, financial difficulties faced by the U.S. Postal Service, which is dealing with a dramatic decrease in mail combined with a federal government unwilling to help, could complicate the mailing of ballots.
However, there are initiatives that could lessen the potential disadvantages to mail-in voting. If states accept online and same-day voter registration, young people who have not registered for the first time may be able to do so last-minute instead of worrying about missing obscure deadlines. An expansion of in-person early voting might also help. Young people who may forget to request, fill out, and mail a ballot may be more likely to take the more straightforward option of simply going to their county office to vote early in a less-crowded environment.
Of course, voter participation for all groups must be protected through the pandemic, but youth voters run the risk of being particularly disenfranchised. If we continue pushing to overcome new and old structural barriers, however, our votes can sway the election. To put it simply, young people can’t let this crisis stop us from voting. In the coming months, we must fight for changes that will make voting as accessible and safe as possible so that we can exercise this fundamental right in one of the most important elections of our lifetimes.
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