Empowering Young People to Vote Amid COVID-19

a pair of shoes in the form of the letter V for vote on a sidewalk toned with a retro vintage instagram filter

At DoSomething.org, our mission is simple: to enable the greatest number of young people to do the greatest amount of good in their communities by volunteering. To go a step further, we aim to transform young volunteers into lifelong, habitual voters as another way to make our communities a better place.

Millions of students across the country are frustrated and tired with the cards they’ve been dealt—crippling student debt, school shootings, climate change, and so much more. Transforming that anger and passion into action is critical to creating the future that young people wish to see. It’s possible, and it starts with tangible action to empower and uplift young voices at the ballot box.

Setting the Scene

This year, millions of young people across the country will vote for the first time in a heightened political climate where voting has never been more central to public discourse. Millennials and Generation Z make up the largest voting bloc in the country—they have the sheer numbers to sway numerous elections this November.

While COVID-19 has hit students hard, they are generally digital natives who are quicker to adapt to the externalities of the ongoing pandemic. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, today’s young people have never grown up in a time where access to digital tools and technology was not part of their day-to-day life. Their digital savvy lends itself well to organizing online—one of the main drivers of the highest youth voter turnout in a midterm election in over 25 years in 2018.

There’s more energy now than ever to vote. According to DoSomething surveying, only 20 percent of young people say that they are less likely to vote as a result of COVID-19. Seventy-five percent of young people, in light of recent protests, state that the most important thing to do in order to continue the fight for racial justice is to vote.

And yet, voter engagement activities have been deeply affected by world events. A new study from the Center for Election Innovation & Research shows that, as a result of COVID-19, “In recent months, several states have experienced a remarkable decline in their new voter registration numbers. This trend is especially notable when compared with new voter registration numbers from the months leading up to the last presidential election in 2016.”

Cycle over cycle, young people have been dubbed the “white whale” in electoral politics—candidates and campaigns chase them because of their power to sway outcomes, but they have not successfully achieved the turnout they wish to see. Why?

Growing Voters

“My voice was finally heard today, and I couldn't be any happier! #FirstTimeVoter.” —DoSomething member Kayla, 18

“My voice was finally heard today, and I couldn’t be any happier! #FirstTimeVoter.” —DoSomething member Kayla, 18

By and large, students are not apathetic. The recent protests around climate change and racial justice demonstrate that fact better than anything else. The biggest reasons they cite when asked why they might not vote are entirely driven by their hectic schedules and the need to rearrange their routine to vote, as well as a striking lack of knowledge around the logistics of voting.

Participating in elections is a new process for most young people, especially high school students who are just becoming of voting age. We often compare this to learning how to drive a car. There’s a set number of steps and a process to earning a driver’s license, and once you do, it marks a moment of freedom and independence for young adults. There should be just as much structure and excitement around learning how to vote. Both driving and voting are new experiences for young people, and both require training in order to be successful.

Schools, teachers, and other community structures play an important role in educating and preparing students to vote. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) created a valuable paradigm that describes the problem we face if we don’t invest in young people’s civics education early. As they succinctly put it, “We don’t automatically become engaged, informed, and empowered to participate in our democracy when we turn 18. Instead, young people begin to understand and experience democracy—and what role they are expected to play in it—well before they reach voting age.” CIRCLE advises a framework of “growing voters,” or intentionally creating opportunities for young people before they are of voting age to learn more about their role and duty as a citizen of our society.

Outside of institutional change to curriculum and voting laws to facilitate easier access to the polls for young people, there are several lower-barrier ways that we can catalyze growing voters for those students who aren’t of voting age or eligible to vote. Consider exploring these ways students can make an impact:

  • Get friends and family registered to vote. One of the simplest ways to get involved is to make sure that your friends and family are registered to vote. Visit www.dosomething.org/NASSP to get started (and more on that below!).
  • Become a student election assistant. Many states allow students to help keep poll operations running smoothly on election day. This is an opportunity to see firsthand how the voting process unfolds for citizens. Reach out to your local board of elections to learn more about how to apply.

Peer-to-Peer Action

“No matter what your personal political beliefs may be, it is so extremely important to vote as well as be educated about the issues that impact you and the individuals that represent you!” —DoSomething member Trey, 19

“No matter what your personal political beliefs may be, it is so extremely important to vote as well as be educated about the issues that impact you and the individuals that represent you!”
—DoSomething member Trey, 19

As aforementioned, voter engagement has been deeply affected by COVID-19, and the next few months will be critical to ensuring that young people turn out to vote. Peer-to-peer action is one of the easiest and most effective ways for students to make an impact on the election beyond their own vote. Dubbed “relational organizing,” the ethos behind peer-to-peer action for voter engagement is quite simple: A student reaching out to someone they already know is more effective than a student reaching out to strangers.

One of the best ways for student groups to get involved is to help other students and family members get registered to vote. A new poll conducted by several universities and IGNITE, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that trains young women to be political leaders, shows that more than 77 percent of young people say that having more locations to register (e.g., schools, retail locations) would make them more likely to vote. In light of COVID-19, this means reaching young people digitally, whether that’s texting a friend or sharing something on social media.

NASSP and DoSomething are partnering to empower student leaders and student groups with an easy-to-use, digital tool to register friends and family. Here’s how to get involved:

  • Visit www.dosomething.org/NASSP to sign up with your school. From there, you’ll create a customized voter registration page with your name and the causes you care about.
  • Share your personalized page with your friends, students, and family. After they register through that page, you’ll see who has registered and who you need to follow up with to finish the process.
  • Work toward a goal that your chapter or school sets for how many voters you want to register together.

Empowering young people to participate in democracy is a challenge that can be met with actionable and tangible solutions. Voter registration is just the first step, but it’s the crucial gateway to participating in elections. It’s one of the most important ways to make our communities a better place. You can do your part by encouraging students to get involved this election year. —


Tej Gokhale is the Civic Action Lead at DoSomething.org based in New York City. He manages national programs that focus on registering, educating, and mobilizing millions of young people to vote and get involved in their communities.