International Policy Digest

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Politics /25 Apr 2020

First-Time Voters in 2020 Face Barriers Due to COVID-19

As COVID-19 quickly spreads across the United States, the virus has shifted the general focus from the contested 2020 U.S. presidential election to the hour-by-hour coverage of the contagion.

Since March 17, COVID-19 has forced states across the nation to postpone their primary elections, starting with the Ohio primary, which will take place on April 28, and 16 other states and territories following in their footsteps. Due to the suspension of these elections, young voters, especially first-timer voters, have been unable to register in person due to the reduction of election workers during these unprecedented times.

Voter turnout, in general, could reach an all-time low during the 2020 primary season because of not being able to register to vote or young people being uninformed of ways they can vote by mail. The only state to vote during the past six weeks was Wisconsin on April 7, which saw a massive decrease in balloters.

In 2016, 2,113,544 people in Wisconsin submitted a ballot, while in 2020, 1,551,771 people voted on April 7, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission. From 2016 to 2020, that is a decrease of 13.1% in voter turnout.

“I would urge an individual to call their state representatives or Secretary of State offices and request assistance to register to vote,” said Dan Howie, executive director of the Independent Voter Project (IVP), when asked how first-time voters can register today. Howie founded IVP in 2006 to promote equal voting rights for all registered voters regardless of their political affiliation. Based out of California, IVP works with the public to inform voters on nonpartisan facts of each candidate’s campaign platforms.

Like Howie, Kathryn Quintin, partnership manager at the Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition, pointed out multiple routes of ways first-time voters can register to utilize their 15th amendment right. Quintin said that students should register to vote online because it shows if they made an error on their forms compared to registering to vote on paper.

Quintin also pointed out that students should either pick from using their campus address so they can vote in person or use their home address to request an absentee ballot at least 30 days before a federal election. Due to coronavirus, Quintin advocates for students to plan to request an absentee ballot.

The SLSV Coalition is made up of hundreds of local leaders across the nation who work with several non-profit voting organizations to promote civic engagement on more than 1,700 college campuses.

Quintin noted that first-time voter turnouts has exponentially increased within the past decades due to the promotion of public participation. According to Quintin, 49 college campuses participated in the National Voter Registration Day in 2014 for the midterm election, while 556 campuses participated in 2019 for an off-year election.

The SLSV Coalition works with college campuses to change the perception of college student voters. “Many people think of college students as lazy voters, but they are first-time voters and they need to be provided with support because they are new to the process,” said Quintin.

Some first-time voters, like Sabina Eastman, were proactive in registering to vote before the COVID-19 pandemic hit close to home. The 18-year-old college student from Omaha, Nebraska shared that the ballot she will mail in for Nebraska’s primary in May, and the general election in November, will be the most important vote she’ll ever submit because her mother is running for Congress. Kara Eastman is the presumptive Democratic nominee facing off against incumbent Republican Congressman Don Bacon for the U.S. Congressional NE-02 District seat in November.

“(My mother) ran in 2018 and lost by less than 5,000 votes, which is a big deal for (NE-02). This is one of the biggest swing districts in the country,” said Eastman. “We work with a lot of college-aged groups and I help to reach out to young voters across the district with her volunteers.”

Like Eastman, Steven Stabile, a high school senior in Boca Raton, Florida, has had November 3, 2020, circled on his calendar for a while now. The 18-year-old lifelong conservative said, “I’m very much looking forward to using my ability to vote for the first time itself as well as voting and being able to help President Donald Trump be re-elected for a second term.”

Stabile mentioned that he attended President Trump’s “Florida Homecoming Rally” in November 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic. “What the president was saying and his interaction with the crowd inspired me in the sense of the true meaning of American unity and pride,” said Stabile.

Eastman mentioned that as a young voter, she keeps tabs on all candidates by researching their environmental policies, healthcare plans, gun safety suggestions, and plans on immigration and prison reforms. Stabile added on by saying he values a candidate’s background and support for the first and second amendment, public tax cuts, investments in infrastructure, and being less dependent on foreign nations, such as China and Iran.

Before Eastman, Stabile, and their friends cast their ballots, Kathryn Quintin recommends that young voters should vote for “who they identify with,” regardless of whether they live in a battleground state.