Voting groups scramble to reach college students in pandemic

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Rick Hart, a volunteer for the Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, at his family's home in Laurel, Md., Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020. Colleges are reopening with more online learning, and that's proving a challenge for political campaigns, parties and voter registration groups trying to register students. They're trying to figure out how to reach young voters when campuses are empty and students are scattered across the country. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

RALEIGH, N.C. – Chase Gaines wishes he could get more young people in North Carolina to answer their front doors and take his GOP flyer.

Rick Hart longs for the days where he would wake up at 6 a.m. to prep for a day of campaigning in the streets of Atlanta to persuade his classmates to elect Democrats.

The two college students are on opposite ends of the political universe but facing the same challenge: reaching young voters when campuses are empty and students are scattered across the country.

“The pandemic really did hit us significantly," said Hart, an unpaid student volunteer at Morehouse College who was working in Georgia on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, but is now back at his parents' home in Laurel, Maryland. "The country kind of came to a shut down and we were like, ‘What do we do next?’”

Campaigns, advocacy groups and registration organizations say they're still struggling to answer that question — and looking for creative, largely digital, solutions.

The coronavirus has forced many colleges to adopt online-only classes, eliminating hopes of large in-person registration drives on campus. Outdoor festivals, sporting events and other public gatherings are canceled, cutting off more easy access to college-age voters.

Groups dedicated to rallying young voters have worries that go beyond registrations. With campuses closing, college students are especially transient, causing confusion about whether they should register at their home or school address. The shift to mail voting raises other unexpected hurdles for young voters, including a lack of familiarity with the U.S. Postal Service and even improper cursive penmanship that can lead to rejected votes.

“Younger voters are behind the eight ball to begin with, and COVID is just going to make it worse,” said Daniel Smith, a professor and chair of political science at the University of Florida, who has studied mail-in balloting.