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College Political Activists Trade Door-Knocking For Apps To Register Voters


The start of the new school year is prime time for registering college students to vote. But with much of in-person campus life on hold, political organizing at universities is going online. NPR's Shannon Bond has more.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Normally, around this time Matt Nowling would be coming up with creative ways to register his fellow students to vote, like a dorm storm.

MATT NOWLING: We ran into people's dorms, knocked their doors and got them registered to vote. Sometimes got kicked out of dorms. But... (laughter).

BOND: Nowling is a senior at Denison University outside Columbus, Ohio, and interim president of College Democrats of America. Like many students who have returned to campus under restrictions to keep the virus from spreading, Nowling is finding this year challenging.

NOWLING: All the different events that we would have in person simply can't happen, and I miss that a lot.

BOND: Doing activism during a pandemic is hard, says Ben Rajadurai, executive director of the College Republican National Committee.

BEN RAJADURAI: We are trained, like, knock doors, not keyboards, right? And then overnight, it's like, no, no, no, knock keyboards. You quite literally cannot knock doors right now.

BOND: So on campuses across the country, club recruiting fairs are happening on Zoom. College Republicans and Democrats are promoting virtual events on Instagram and Facebook. Members are swapping political memes on messaging apps like GroupMe. Claire Grissum is president of College Republicans at the University of Missouri.

CLAIRE GRISSUM: We have a group chat where people talk all the time, and it's always going. And there's people in there, new people added all the time, hopping into the conversation.

BOND: But she says it's harder online to grab the attention of a student whose mind is on classes and college life, not politics, someone who might not seek out a group chat but would, in a normal year, strike up a conversation while walking across the quad. With just two months before the election, pressure is on to get the country's 18 million college students registered. They're less likely to vote than older Americans. But researcher Adam Gismondi of Tufts University says students are mobilized.

ADAM GISMONDI: Often around specific issues - so around DACA, around the safety of Black Americans and around, you know, the sort of unavoidable attention that the Trump administration has received.

BOND: Tech companies are also trying to help. Snapchat is letting people register to vote inside its app. Facebook aims to register 4 million voters by November. But the organizers I spoke to say digital tools can't replace face-to-face interaction and persuasion in the brief window between now and Election Day. Here's Rajadurai of the College Republicans.

RAJADURAI: That first touch with an activist or potential voter, it's arguably the most important contact. That conversation becomes a lot tougher in the digital space, right?

BOND: Which means over at Penn State, College Democrats are planning to register voters in person. The group's president, Jacob Klipstein, says they'll use masks and take other precautions.

JACOB KLIPSTEIN: We're going to be using gloves. We're going to be using hand sanitizer. We're going to be using clipboards. And we're going to have towels to wipe down pens.

BOND: There are signs registration efforts are working. Tufts found that, in 20 states, more young voters were already registered by this August than in November 2016. But many students are facing uncertainty over where to register and vote because it's unclear whether they'll still be on campus come November. Universities are already dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks. Some are scaling back reopening. Serena Ishwar leads the College Democrats at Ohio State University.

SERENA ISHWAR: The likelihood of them saying, oh, well, the cases are too high, you guys have to go home, like two weeks before the election - it really worries me.

BOND: That's why she's pushing to get people registered right away and figure out how to change their addresses if campus shuts down.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.


Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.