A politician who’s popular with the youth vote is sometimes a blessing and a curse.
Take Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. Back in February, Sanders had support from 50 percent of college students, according to a poll from Chegg/College Pulse. But the day after Super Tuesday, Sanders said his campaign wasn’t successful in getting enough young people to vote for him.
The University of Oregon’s student body wasn’t immune from low voter turnout during the coronavirus-affected primary election. According to precinct data from the Lane County Elections office, fewer people voted compared to past elections. But UO’s student groups have formed a coalition to get students registered and educated on the ballot.
Elizabeth Radcliffe is the state board chair of Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), a student-run group. She says with the Oct. 13 voter registration deadline coming up, the organization is “blitzing on outreach.” She says the group has talked to 30,000 students at the UO, Lane Community College and Southern Oregon University about making sure they’re registered to vote, their registration is up-to-date and they have a plan to turn in their ballot.
Usually OSPIRG would be tabling outside EMU to talk with students about voter registration, but thanks to COVID the group has shifted to other strategies to get students registered. One way is through mutual friend outreach, she says. In addition to volunteers calling strangers, they’re telling their friends to check in on other friend’s registration status.
UO’s student government is one of the 28 campus groups dedicated to getting students registered and voting. Associated Students of the UO Chief of Staff Nathanial Leof says they’re collaborating with other campus groups that have led previous voter registration campaigns. “We are focused on using their experience and expertise to register as many students on campus,” he says.
Leof says ASUO is helping with advertising on social media, encouraging professors to talk about voting during online class time and working with multicultural center groups to make sure BIPOC student voices are heard during registration.
Leof says registration outreach includes multiple mediums, like working with the Oregon Student Association’s “What’s On Your Ballot” virtual forum, where an OSA representative does a virtual rundown of a local ballot with a neutral perspective. Since college football has been delayed, one way to get students registered is by competing against the rest of the Pac-12 conference. The UO is competing against universities in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and California to see who can register the most students.
But Leof says they’re not trying to just register students but also to inform them about the ballot.
“We want to focus on making sure that students aren’t just registered to vote,” he says, “but that they feel educated when they go to vote so they aren’t just voting for the presidential race, but also for their local congress people, their city council, ballot measure — all of those things.”
Voter data on two areas of Eugene where UO students usually live show changing voting behavior over the years.
Voter precinct number 1343 contains campus and close proximity housing to the UO; it runs from Franklin to 30th and Agate to Hilyard, and 1349 is an area typically lived in by students; it spans Pearl to Hilyard and 18th to 11th.
Those two precincts accounted for 5,851 voters in the 2016 general election. In those two spots, Hillary Clinton received 4,750 votes, and Donald Trump had 473 votes. But down ballot fewer people voted in the U.S. Senate race and state offices.
For the 2016 primary election when Sanders was challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination, the two precincts had 3,076 votes. But the 2020 primary saw a sharp decrease in votes: 1,835 Democratic Party votes were cast in the two precincts. The primary was during the early period of the pandemic and Joe Biden had secured the nomination by May.
Radcliffe says students moving back home because of COVID was probably the biggest reason for the low student turnout earlier this year because whenever you move, you have to update your voter registration. “That’s why we’re focusing our messaging on, ‘If you’ve moved recently at all, you have to re-register if you want to be eligible,’” she says.
Radcliffe says she has to remind first-year students on campus that their parents can’t forward the ballot; the student has to change their address and request an absentee ballot if they’re from out of state.
But students are showing up compared to past elections, she adds. The number of students who voted in the 2014 compared to the 2018 midterms grew by 16 percent. And students whose first election is 2020 are excited to cast their ballot in November.
“The folks I’ve talked to have just turned 18; this is their first election — it’s a pretty exciting one to be your first,” Radcliffe says. “People are really excited and getting involved and looking forward to making an impact with their vote.”