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Election Protection is WKSU’s community information initiative focused on access, policy and community resources around voting this November.

Voting in College: the COVID-19 Pandemic Presents Students with Unique Challenges Unforeseen in Years Past

Students at The University of Akron
Keith Freund
Students at The University of Akron and other institutions of higher education throughout Ohio are dealing with challenges related to voting brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

College students are often advised to make a plan to vote, if they’re going to be living on campus during a presidential election. But this year has already presented challenges for student voters that some may not have seen before.

Uncertainty is the hallmark of this semester, with COVID leaving many students unsure until the last weeks of summer if they’d be living on campus—and still unsure how long they’ll be sticking around. And that’s created some special issues for students hoping to vote.

The complications begin with registering to vote. It can be done online. But that requires identification, most often from a driver’s license, says Ethan Lower, a member of Kent State University’s Undergraduate Student Government, and a fellow at the Campus Election Engagement Project, a national, non-partisan non-profit. He notes that many of the addresses on those driver’s licenses differ from the campus addresses many students use to vote.

Keith Freund
A student walks through The University of Akron campus. College students make up one of many groups of voters who are finding preparing to vote in November's general election a challenging experience.

“Students should be able to register here and vote here,” he said.

Lower is a critic of the state law that, in practice, requires new voters to go back and forth between two web sites: the Ohio secretary of state and Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

“You don’t have to vote. I would love you to, but you should have that option at all times to be able to vote. It should be easy, and it should be inexpensive and it should be safe,” Lower said.

Students could have updated their driver’s license addresses to their campus addresses online. But a change on a license applies to a lot more than voting.

Nate Hall is Ohio’s director of the Campus Election Engagement Project for the Ohio Campus Compact. Given the complications, he was recommending young people register to vote by the U.S. mail to avoid the runaround.

“The traditional paper voter registration form is not encountering any of these problems. You can still use the paper registration form and should be able to register to vote at your on-campus address,” he said.

But old-fashioned mail is not the native language of many younger people.

Registration may have been an early complication, but it’s not the only one. Like millions of other voters, Hall notes that students are trying to decide whether to vote by mail, show up for early in-person voting at their boards of elections, or to wait for Election Day Nov. 3.

“It’s hard to make that plan when you don’t know where you’re physically going to be,” Hall said.

And engaging newly registered voters also has grown more complicated. In any other election year, Lower would be organizing in-person events on Kent’s campus.

“We’d be out tabling. We’d be hosting large in-person events like we had planned for the primaries," he said.

He says something’s lost with virtual-only events.

“The most effective kinds of civic engagement have proven to be in-person so it’s difficult to try and rely on an entirely virtual campaign, but we’re doing the best we can,” Hall said.

Bree Chambers is a student at Capital University and a leader of the Akron Minority Council, a group whose goals are to fight for marginalized communities. She has opted to stay home this semester and do distance learning. She acknowledges campus connections have grown more complicated but says the best civic engagement happens among close friends.

“To make sure that the people closest to you, in those inner circles, know the process," she said. “The circumstances are pretty dire. And so it is my hope that they have people in their lives, or that I can be a person in someone’s life, to explain to them exactly what the consequences of their vote may be for either side of things."

Despite challenges for students planning on voting this year, excitement hasn’t dwindled. Recent studies by Harvard University and the Knight Foundation show people aged 18 to 29 are increasingly interested in voting this year.

Kent’s Lower says it’s a level of engagement that has elements of enthusiasm, urgency and anxiety, including whether their votes will count.

Kellie Nock is freelance journalist who has previously interned with WKSU. As an intern, her focus of stories were centered around entrepreneurship in Northeast Ohio. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. As a student, she wrote for various student media and hosted radio shows through the university's radio station.