Campus navigates new realities of campaigning during COVID-19

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GRAPHIC BY CARMEN HONKER / THE FLAT HAT

In preparation for the 2020 presidential election Nov. 3, the College of William and Mary’s campus has been abuzz with efforts to mobilize the student vote. From all sides of the political spectrum, students have been campaigning for local and nationwide candidates, conducting COVID-19 friendly phone banks and registering voters.

According to an Oct. 16 email about election preparations from College President Katherine Rowe, the College has a high rate of student participation this election cycle. In the email, Rowe cited a recent Student Assembly poll that demonstrated that 97.1% of students surveyed were registered to vote Nov. 3.

The members of the faculty affairs committee sent a message to students Oct. 30 acknowledging the tension and uncertainty surrounding the election. The email, which followed heated debate over Tribe for Life chalkboard messages earlier this month, called upon students to engage in respectful conversations regarding disagreements.

While some tensions have flared on campus, many students continue to funnel their energy into encouraging voting through student organizations like the College’s Young Republicans and Young Democrats. Additionally, the College has aided voter awareness efforts through the formation of the Voter Engagement Action Committee.

Officially formed during August and September of this year, The Voter Engagement Action Committee centers its mission around  promoting voter awareness in a non-partisan manner. Students, staff and community leaders comprise the committee in an effort to promote input across all sections of the College and greater Williamsburg.

The group’s core initiatives revolve around advertising key dates and deadlines related to voter registration and absentee balloting as well as where to vote early and where to drop off absentee ballots. The committee also made how-to videos about voting in Williamsburg and hosted text-banking sessions.

The group utilized staff and student listservs, social media and the personal networks of the committee members to spread voter awareness resources. Office of Community Engagement Associate Director Rich Thompson said that the Voter Engagement Action Committee relies on partnerships with other campus groups and offices to propel their efforts. During the semester, the committee worked with Student Leadership Development, Residence Life, the Campus Vote Project and the Campus Election Engagement Project.

“The composition of the Committee and their networks has been our main source of developing effective collaborations,” Thompson said in an email.

The forming of the official committee in advance of the presidential election speaks to the palpable significance of this election cycle, as Thompson explained that this year was the first time a committee of this sort was founded at the College.

“Again our main impetus has been to promote voter awareness in a Non-Partisan approach. To the best of my knowledge this is the first year that a formal committee was developed in support of such an effort.”

“Again our main impetus has been to promote voter awareness in a Non-Partisan approach,” Thompson said. “To the best of my knowledge this is the first year that a formal committee was developed in support of such an effort.”

Thompson expressed that the condensed semester and the COVID-19 pandemic pressured the committee to disseminate voting information and resources in a timely fashion.

“As we got into the compressed semester and this period of COVID we quickly realized that people’s time was even more precious,” Thompson said. “Therefore — we endeavored to get pertinent information out timely and provide resources/programming that people to access at their discretion.”

Based on his own research and polling, Thompson said that he is confident that students and staff will be voting at a high rate in the election.

“From the data that I have accessed from 2018 W&M has one of the higher rates of student registrations and a history of voting compared to many US colleges/universities,” Thompson said. “… I have also done some several straw polls of students that I work with and most — if not all told me that they have already voted or will be voting in the elections. Therefore, I am cautiously optimistic that W&M students & Fac/Staff will be voting at a fairly high rate for this election cycle.”

NextGen is a nationwide coalition of young people mobilizing for progressive candidates with a chapter that is active on the College’s campus. The group includes a NextGen fellow and about 20 club members and is directly affiliated with NextGen Virginia.

NextGen Virginia fellow Maddi Nicol ’21 said that her team works to register and pledge voters and elect progressive candidates. Nicol said that NextGen’s efforts have intensified during this election cycle.

“I wouldn’t say the goals have changed throughout the year, only that they have gotten stronger with the election approaching,” Nicol said in an email.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected and altered the approach of groups like NextGen in their efforts to organize student voters. Previous fall semesters would have been full of NextGen voter registration drives and events like petting zoos, pumpkin decorating and donuts on the Sadler Terrace to engage with students.

“NextGen’s work on campus has been different this fall semester compared to past semesters,” Nicol said. “Since everything is virtual, the usual events and activities we would be doing have changed a lot. In a typical semester we would be tabling/clip-boarding every day at Sadler and on the Sadler Terrace and we would hold monthly voter registration events.”

For this semester, Nicol has conducted all organizing virtually, using Zoom, social media and text-banking.

“Since we can’t hold in-person events, most of the work we have been doing is virtual,” Nicol said. “We have held a few class and club RAPs (stands for Register All People) where we went to zoom class and club meetings to register students to vote and we have done a lot of text-banking/phone-banking during our zoom club meetings and posting on social media to spread awareness and information.”

The virtual nature of most NextGen events impacted the number of people Nicol was able to help register to vote in person, but she said she was able to assist some students register virtually.

“I definitely was not able to register as many people in person as I would have in a normal semester,” Nicol said. “I socially distance-registered some of my friends in person but did not hold any major voter registration events. But I definitely talked to and helped people virtually register by answering DMs and texts people sent me about voting.”

Nicol said that she used social media to connect with students about voting resources, and that she has been impressed by the amount of people sharing voting information on their personal platforms.

“The voting engagement rate, in my opinion, seems to be a lot higher than a typical year,” Nicol said. “Just looking at social media I see so many people posting about voting and reminding their friends to vote and about deadlines, where in a typical year it usually felt like I/NextGen was the only one posting consistently. So even though I have not been able to physically interact with people and register them to vote on campus, it feels like engagement is super high and that people are very invested in this election.”

Nicol said that it is important for everyone who is voting on election day to make a solidified plan about how and when they will be voting, as it is easy to fall behind schedule. She underscored that in Virginia, everyone in line to vote by 7 p.m. when the polls close will still be able to vote.

Nicol expressed that she is hopeful that all of NextGen’s work will contribute to the voter turnout, although she said she is personally nervous about the weight that the election result holds.

“I’m not really sure what my outlook is — feeling pretty anxious and nervous, but hopeful at the same time.”

“I’m not really sure what my outlook is — feeling pretty anxious and nervous, but hopeful at the same time,” Nicol said. “Hoping that all the hard work we have put in pays off and hoping that the citizens of this country make the right decision. This will definitely be an election that will change the history of our country, much like the 2016 election did.”

In addition to NextGen’s registration efforts, students at the College affiliated with campus political organizations like The College’s Young Republicans and Young Democrats also sought to increase voter turnout on both sides of the aisle.

With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting traditional campaign activities such as canvassing, College Republicans President Tom Callahan ’21 said they have sought COVID-19 safe alternatives such as phone banking, inviting speakers and connecting students with internships at local campaigns.

“It’s been very difficult — it hasn’t been necessarily what we wanted, but we’re making the best of things.”

“It’s been very difficult — it hasn’t been necessarily what we wanted, but we’re making the best of things,” Callahan said.

Though College Republicans does not formally endorse any candidates, Callahan identified Republican candidate Scott Taylor, who is running a tight race against Democratic candidate Elaine Luria in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, and Republican candidate Daniel Gade, who is running for Senate, as candidates for which College Republicans has campaigned. College Republicans does not formally endorse President Donald Trump and Callahan said the club’s membership is split when it comes to support for the president.

Young Democrats President Selene Swanson ’22 said her organization has also encouraged students not only to vote but to also become involved in campaign work.

“The Young Democrats have been doing a lot of campaigning this year, both for national-level races — obviously the presidency — as well as races here in Virginia,” Swanson said. “The senate election and also the congressional election, which is very close in Virginia’s Second district. Because of COVID, we haven’t been able to do all the campaign activities we normally engage in, so our focus this year has been on reaching out to voters through phone calls and letting them know about the opportunity to vote that has changed a bit this year and it’s gotten easier to vote.”

Unlike College Republicans, Young Democrats does formally endorse all Democratic candidates. Swanson said that being mostly online has allowed the organization to work with a number of progressive groups on campus.

“Being online has made our events a lot more accessible, so we have seen a lot of engagement from students. It’s been rewarding to get engagement from other progressive groups on campus who are not necessarily members of the Young Democrats.”

“Being online has made our events a lot more accessible, so we have seen a lot of engagement from students,” Swanson said. “It’s been rewarding to get engagement from other progressive groups on campus who are not necessarily members of the Young Democrats.”

One example Swanson gave was the Williamsburg Sunrise Movement’s efforts to triple voter turnout by asking students leaving the polls to text three friends to vote. The Sunrise Movement pushes for progressive action on climate change and environmental issues and endorses candidates that support this action, but it is not necessarily affiliated with the Democratic party. Swanson said Young Democrats has also reached out to multicultural groups on campus following this summer’s reckoning with issues of racial injustice and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

“In the context of the events this summer, something I think I’ve taken from that and something I’ve tried to bring to my leadership of the Young Dems is that electoral politics is not where it ends,” Swanson said. “It’s not the end-all-be-all, but it’s an important element of it. Who is in power and who our elected officials are does make a difference. So it’s important for us to be out on the streets at protests — mobilizing that way, but it’s just as important for us to be showing up on election day.”

Young Democrats Vice President  Owen Williams ’23 hopes that these connections will continue past the election.

“Our outreach and our partnerships with other campus organizations has definitely improved a lot this semester just because we’re all going through the same struggles of being online and it’s made the progressive organizations on campus rely on each other a lot more.”

“Our outreach and our partnerships with other campus organizations has definitely improved a lot this semester just because we’re all going through the same struggles of being online and it’s made the progressive organizations on campus rely on each other a lot more,” Williams said. “I think we’ve built some good partnerships this semester that will hopefully continue in future years.”

In addition to his role in Young Democrats, Williams serves as a Class of 2023 senator in Student Assembly, where he has been working to encourage a culture of civic engagement on campus. Owens also played a critical role in passing the No Class on Election Day Resolution that called on the College administration to make Nov. 3 a holiday for students.

“Obviously, Student Assembly is completely non-partisan, so we have not really been focused on turnout on an individual basis,” Williams said. “We’re more focused on removing barriers to voting. We passed the ‘No Class on Election Day’ resolution. Through that, we’ve been in conversations with the Provost and the deans of the Graduate Schools and undergraduate Arts and Sciences to encourage professors to make their classes asynchronous or cancel them on election day. We’re just trying to make an atmosphere of civic participation. We know that William and Mary, compared to other schools our size in the nation, has extremely high rates of student turnout already, so we’re starting from a very good position. But we know our mission isn’t done until we’re at 100 percent student turnout. Instead of doing it on an individualized basis, we’re more focused on the culture of the school and we want to make sure that academics are never a barrier to a student voting.”

After the election, both College Republicans and Young Democrats said their work will remain vital.

“You could say this is a beautiful thing or a not so beautiful thing about Virginia — we always have elections,” Callahan said. “We have statewide elections going on next year — we’re going to have House of Delegates seats up, state senate seats up. We’re probably going to move on to that. At the same point, we are pretty big on criminal justice reform, telehealth has been pretty big for us. We’ll continue to push for that. Those are some of the issues that are going to be at the forefront of our membership’s mind.”

In discussing criminal justice reform and telemedicine, Callahan mentioned working with Americans for Prosperity, which is a conservative advocacy group founded in 2004 by the Koch brothers.

Callahan also mentioned the recent debate over Tribe for Life’s chalkboard messages as it relates to political tensions on campus.

“There’s a lot of passion going around — a lot of anger, a lot of division,” Callahan said. “I certainly know from a lot of my conservative friends that I’ve spoken with on campus that they are very afraid to voice any dissenting viewpoint, even if it’s not necessarily totally dissenting but even a deviation from a norm — they’re afraid. That’s not necessarily unfounded, in my opinion. College Republicans has always said that we’re a safe space for discussing conservative ideas.”

Swanson and Williams weighed the possibility of either a Biden or Trump victory, but concluded that this election is where the work begins.

“We’ve been very focused on moving away from campaign work as the sole focus of the club,” Williams said. “If Nov. 3 comes and Biden does win, that is amazing because we’ve worked so hard for that, but we’ve acknowledged that that’s when the real fight begins — that’s not when it ends. We would then be focused on pushing the administration as much as possible to follow through on all the campaign promises they’ve made. We need to make sure we’re making real change for a lot of communities that have not been addressed by electoral politics in the past.”

Ultimately, the two organizations agreed on the importance of voting and ensuring that all students at the College have the opportunity to vote.

“It certainly is going to be a stressful time for me and for everyone else,” Callahan said. “I think the biggest thing is to make sure that everybody votes. We’ve seen a lot of division over the summer and a lot of tension even now, so I think making sure that we get everybody out to vote is going to be a really important thing. If you want your voice heard, you have to vote.”