For college students across America, the pandemic has disrupted classes, delayed careers and deprived them of precious time with friends and faculty. But even as the pandemic throws their future into chaos, it will also make it harder for students to shape that future by voting in the 2020 elections.
As we saw with UNC-Chapel Hill this week, this pandemic will likely force a number of colleges and universities to close, which will disperse millions of students across the country. These students are often first-time voters, and navigating questions about where and how they can register and vote is complicated under normal conditions.
Away from school, millions of students will now have to navigate the often complex process of registering or requesting absentee ballots without the benefit of student groups, on-campus resources and the voter drives that typically boost participation. Without support, many of these new voters may not cast their ballots correctly or at all.
These challenges come on the heels of a broader effort in many states to suppress student voting. New Hampshire, for example, passed a law requiring new voters who drive to secure in-state auto registration and driver’s licenses, which can cost several hundreds of dollars a year. At least seven states — Arizona, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — do not accept student IDs to vote. On several campuses nationwide, the closest polling place is often miles away.
Despite these barriers, in 2018, youth turnout hit its highest level in over 30 years for a midterm election (it was still only 36%). We cannot let the pandemic reverse this momentum.
That is why we introduced the National Emergency Student Vote Act. Our bill would require colleges and universities to provide every student a voter registration form, which they can use to register at their current location or their campus location, depending on their preference and eligibility. If a college or university has asked their students to stay off-campus this fall because of the pandemic, our bill would also require them to provide every student with an absentee ballot application and clear instructions on eligibility. Finally, it would direct colleges and universities to remind students about election-related deadlines and provide them with nonpartisan resources, like Vote.org, to help answer questions about where and how they can register, request absentee ballots and cast their vote.
Although partisan gridlock in Washington may prevent this bill from passing before the 2020 elections, colleges and universities can and should take these steps voluntarily. They can also partner with organizations like When We All Vote, the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, the Campus Vote Project and the Andrew Goodman Foundation to help connect students with the resources to cast their ballots this fall.
From climate change to our changing economy, few groups have more at stake in the outcome of this election than students. Few groups also have more power to shape that outcome. Today there are roughly 20 million voting-eligible college students in America, more than every registered voter in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Colorado combined. They deserve a voice in November consistent with their size and stakes. And all of us — elected officials, college and university administrators, community leaders — should do everything we can to make sure they are heard.
The pandemic has already deprived college students of precious time on campuses with their friends and faculty this fall. We cannot allow it to deprive them of their right to vote.
Senator Michael Bennet represents Colorado in the U.S. Senate.