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The Pandemic Can’t Stop Us: Youth Vote Initiatives Go Virtual

By Sophie Burkholder

The way we vote is about to be turned upside down. Fears of the coronavirus pandemic have prompted fears of in-person voting, and demand for mail-in ballots has seen a dramatic increase. There’s little that will stand in the way of the determined youth vote, but recent changes to the polling system because of the pandemic might challenge it. Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot applications require voters to enter their driver’s license numbers, preventing those without driver’s licenses from registering.

But in the face of these difficulties, some young voters are more energized than ever to tell the world how they feel. And When We All Vote (WWAV) is one of the many organizations trying to make sure that happens.

Across the country, high schools and universities — the easiest places to find young voters — are going online to limit the spread of the coronavirus. So the organizers behind WWAV decided to do the same and launch a virtual Student Ambassadors initiative.

Last Wednesday, nearly 50 students from across the country joined a Zoom call with WWAV staffers to find ways of energizing the youth vote on a virtual front. Squares of young faces populated the screen, some with simulated backgrounds of tropical beaches or the skylines of their hometowns. Soon, there were too many faces for one screen alone, and Zoom created multiple pages of arrays of postage-stamp sized video feeds, students dialing in from their bedrooms, their back porches, and even their phones.

Amore, the director of the My School Votes program under WWAV, said he wanted to launch weekly Student Ambassador meetings to “create a dedicated space where people can organize, come together, and give titles to the roles they’re playing in the youth vote.” Students from Philadelphia, Miami, Detroit, and other cities nodded along in agreement from their video tiles on the screen.

To students’ delight, joining the meeting was special guest Valerie Jarrett — the former senior advisor to Barack Obama. She underscored the importance of lifting youth voter energy across the country. With everything going on in the country right now, she pointed out that the right to vote is more important than ever. “This virus has shown us how interconnected we all are. What happens in this country impacts all countries. What happens in one county can affect the entire nation.”

Students took turns asking Jarrett about her career and about what the Obamas are really like, but one Philadelphia student wanted to know why, in Jarrett’s opinion, the youth vote mattered so much.

Following the Q&A with Jarrett was a brief training session for students on how to use an app called Outvote: a digital organizing tool that allows students to participate in causes and campaigns they care about, and connect friends to them, too. Amore pointed out that Outvote could help Student Ambassadors engage in district friend-mapping, with the goal of connecting friends from every school in a given district. Through Outvote, students can text friends about voter participation and galvanize support for the causes and campaigns they care about.

After learning the ropes on Outvote, students broke out into groups based on regional locations, to brainstorm even more ideas. Angie Hinton, the My School Votes National Regional Organizer for Philadelphia, encouraged students to reach out to as many friends as possible from different high schools in the area. “Who we vote for determines what kinds of schools we have, and what kind of funding we get for community resources,” she told the Philadelphia students over Zoom. “There is an even greater need for participation now, because the virus has closed everything.”

Hinton’s right. The youth vote matters a lot now, especially as young Pennsylvanians navigate the requirements for a driver's license or PA DOT ID, and if not, a printer at home to print an alternative paper form to sign and mail. If the virus persists into the fall, it may continue to prevent people from voting out of fear of infection. Hinton’s efforts to promote the local youth vote share the same mission as #VoteThatJawn: to propel first-time voters to the polls. After all, as Jarrett pointed out to the WWAV Student Ambassadors, we know that those who vote in their first elections are more likely to become lifelong voters.

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