Madeline Pederson, 18, imagined that in the months leading up to Election Day, she’d be spending hours standing at a voter registration table on campus at the University of Texas at Austin, flagging down students walking through campus and registering them to vote.
Instead, the freshman neuroscience major is holed up in her childhood bedroom in Arlington, taking all her classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Her voter activism is relegated to Zoom.
“It’s just me and my laptop against the world,” said Pederson, who was block walking for candidates before she was old enough to vote.
Campaigns, political organizations and students at schools across Texas say they’re worried and frustrated that pandemic health restrictions are stymying efforts to register and turn out students to vote.
“The pandemic threw a wrench in everything, but we’re definitely doing our best,” said Corrina Sullivan, who runs voter registration tables and online outreach as chief of staff for the Student Government Association at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Registration parties and get out the vote rallies are banned, and tables are sparsely attended as some campuses stand mostly empty. State and local bans on large gatherings have killed festivals, concerts, and political rallies, typically on every organizers’ list for recruiting and educating voters, particularly young people.
As voter registration rates plummet and tension mounts over a divisive presidential election, college students across the nation are facing myriad pandemic-era challenges to registration and voting — and pressure is mounting on universities and local governments to ease the strain.
Officials at the University of Georgia recently walked back a decision to ban on-campus voting because of the pandemic, after facing criticism by students and local politicians who noted the school was still allowing football games.
The first hurdle, of course, is to get students registered by the Oct. 5 deadline. In Texas, activists said the inability to go door to door and host big public events caused new registrations to plummet by 24% across the state in the first seven months of the year.
As a volunteer with the New Voters Project, run by the Texas Public Interest Research Group advocacy organization, Pederson has gotten permission from professors to visit at least 10 Zoom classes to discuss registration and voting with fellow students for a few minutes before class starts.
Zoom visits are one way advocates are combatting pandemic limitations. Other methods include doubling down on their digital and social media efforts, engaging apartment complexes to distribute registration cards, and otherwise pivoting to make up for the weakening of their historically strongest strategy: face-to-face engagement.
“We would normally be doing so much in person right now with people on these campuses, and it’s just not safe. It’s not appropriate,” said Vince Leibowitz, a Democratic consultant and campaign strategist for Hank Gilbert, who is running for Congress in East Texas. “And of course, it shifts your spending. What we were planning to spend on in-person organizers, we’ve shifted to digital.”
Sullivan said at UT-Arlington, COVID restrictions prevented her student group from handing out pizza during National Voter Registration Day — removing a surefire draw for college students — but still managed to get 40 students registered and another 40 forms handed out.
“It doesn’t look quite the same, given the fact that there’s not the same number of people on campus,” she said.
Barriers for college voters in Texas vary from campus to campus, and have existed long before the pandemic. They include lack of access to polling places, apathy after losses on Super Tuesday and in 2018, and fears over losing their jobs if they take too long to vote. Now the pandemic has added new challenges including the possibility of students being sent home without notice because of a COVID-19-related campus shutdown, and displacement caused by distance learning.
At Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in white, rural, conservative Waller County, the culture of voting is strong in a school that has fought for student voting rights for decades, said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science and a Prairie View graduate.
The school is locked in a legal battle with Waller County over accusations of student voter suppression, after five students filed a lawsuit in 2018 when the county provided no polling sites on campus or in the city of Prairie View in the first week of early voting. Now, its once-powerful voting bloc of 9,000 mostly Democratic and Black students threatens to be weakened in the upcoming local elections because half of them are taking classes online from their hometowns, like Dallas and Houston, Price said.
The school was instrumental in students across the nation beling allowed to vote from their school addresses in the 1970s — something many of them can’t take advantage of this time because they haven’t established permanent addresses at school this semester.
“They’ll be back and living with the consequences of this election no matter what,” Price said. “It’s sad because [the pandemic] actually achieves something that the county officials couldn’t, which is to dilute the impact of the student vote and limiting the participation of the students in local government.”
The school is hosting panel discussions, screening documentaries, doing voter registration days, and inviting Prairie View alum Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, and members of the Legal Defense Fund to engage students in the election whether they live on campus or at home, Price said.
Hours away in the Hill Country, students at Texas State University in San Marcos worry about a different problem: too many local voters and not enough voting sites.
On a 3-2 party-line vote, the mostly-GOP Hayes County Commissioners Court voted in August against installing a second on-campus polling place.
The second location was requested by students after they waited in four-hour lines both in 2018 and again on Super Tuesday in March.
“Texas State is a campus of 37,000 people, and it has one polling location. Would you do that in a town of 37,000 people? Of course not. That’s berserk,” said Joe Cascino, president of the Texas College Democrats. “The lines on Election Day are going to be horrendous, there and in other schools, and we're just kind of bracing for the impact.”
In Lubbock, long lines aren’t a significant worry, organizers there say. But the highly publicized rise in cases among Texas Tech University students, who account for more than 10% of the town’s population and most of its new cases, creates fear of health risks and confusion over the process during the pandemic, organizers said.
“I think that the biggest issue right now is not the pandemic itself, but people understanding that things are still happening and that resources are available to them, whether that’s in the form of an absentee ballot or safeguards in place to protect in-person voting [from health risks],” said Ryan Hand, president of the College Republicans at Texas Tech. “I think it’s more about fear and the understanding that you can still vote, rather than any real barriers to the process itself.”
At Texas Southern University, a historically black Harris County college where a host of problems lead to voters waiting in line until 2 a.m. to cast their votes on campus in March, more voting machines will be available on campus and glitches broadcasting inaccurate waiting times have been fixed, said Nicole Pedersen, head of voter protection for the Harris County Democratic Party.
At least 100 polling sites have been added across Harris County, bringing the total to more than 800 and easing the pressure on the TSU site, she said. Local Democrats have also been recruiting law students to work as poll workers to reduce the chances of sites being shut down by illness or fear among the traditionally elder poll worker population, she said.
“After what happened at TSU during the primary — that horribly long line — everyone is focused on making sure that TSU is a success as a polling site,” Pedersen said.
The challenge for Prairie View students, Price said, is keeping them engaged in spite of all they’ve been through in the last six months — economic loss, sudden shut down of schools, and the psychological toll taken by intense division over police shootings of Black people.
“We’re going to try to convince these students that, despite all these reasons for being discouraged, we still need them to show up in the process,” Price said.
And at the University of Texas at El Paso, youth voter apathy is an especially big concern after the losses of candidates popular with the students — namely El Paso native Beto O’Rourke in 2018 and Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday — both of whom won overwhelmingly in the county but lost their races.
But the normal motivational rallies and voter-turnout drives have had to focus on online, as only about 5% of the campus classes have an in-person element, said Todd Curry, associate professor of political science at UTEP.
“I’ve been here for eight years, and when I go to campus, I’ve never seen it this empty, and that includes summer when no one’s on campus,” Curry said.
Lisette Villegas, an 18-year-old UTEP freshman who lives at home and attends school online, said she decided to vote after talking to her peers.
“Sometimes you can get so numb to everything now,” she said. “And so for a while, especially with this whole pandemic, I had that attitude. Things are getting worse by the day. But after doing some reflection and more research I realized: Let’s say things don’t change, but at least I can say that maybe I contributed.”
Campaigns and activists - particularly Democrats, who historically have captured most of the youth vote - say that they believe apathy won’t be a problem for their voters.
“In this election, Democrats will crawl through broken glass to beat Donald Trump,” said Abhi Rahman, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. “I think that college students know, more so than in years past, that their vote definitely counts.”
Republican groups say they are equally motivated, taking advantage of any chance they are given to engage with students in person.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple college campuses flip a couple of House seats,” said Carter Estes, a graduate of Texas Tech University in Lubbock and executive director of the Texas Federation of College Republicans. “We’ve had kids out there pounding the ground, ready to go, ready to get people registered.”