Virus Deals Young Voters Yet Another Blow

By Eliza Newlin Carney

Paul Weaver on Unsplash

Young voters have flocked to Bernie Sanders during the 2020 Democratic primary, but Joe Biden is now his party’s presumptive nominee. It’s been like that a lot for young voters this year, who had been hailed as an emerging powerhouse voting bloc, but who have failed to live up to that billing.

The latest blow comes from nationwide campus closures that have sent college and university students scattering, just as a budding movement to turn them out to vote was looking unstoppable. As I write in The Fulcrum this week: “Registration drives, absentee ballot parties, political forums and new voter trainings are all on hold. Students are scrambling to chase down absentee ballot forms that were mailed to campuses but must now be forwarded to a home or other address. Newly-designated campus polling places will stand empty for the remaining primaries, several of which have been delayed in any case. And students who return this fall will have little time to prepare for Election Day.”

Campus voting advocates have pivoted from field to online organizing, and the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, which boasts more than 100 members, hosted a Twitter chat this week with allies to brainstorm ways to keep up their momentum. Still, if voter suppression efforts succeed by making voting inconvenient, a global pandemic is “the ultimate inconvenience,” noted Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. “We are all stuck in our homes. We are all socially distancing ourselves. And voting is a social act. People vote because their friends vote. People vote in packs.” Read the whole story here.

THE VIRAL PARADOX. The coronavirus has triggered more than one civic paradox. The pandemic has shut down civic spaces and much human contact. Yet our best hope for slowing its spread lies with individual citizens, who must now self-isolate for the greater good. As one journalist recently put it, “a lack of embrace is now an embrace.”

The virus spotlights an American paradox, too. Our nation’s weak institutional response, marred by severe testing and protective equipment shortages, has shaken our faith in government and in our supposed status as a world leader. Yet individual Americans’ generosity, ingenuity and self-sacrifice have also showcased our nation’s most inspiring civic instincts.

From nonprofits to governors, mayors and business owners, state and local players of all stripes have stepped in to mobilize a grassroots response, notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of New America. Their actions “are the hallmarks of a horizontal, open society, one that is often inefficient but ultimately more innovative and resilient than closed, top-down systems,” wrote Slaughter in a recent commentary in The New York Times.

ASK FOR A MASK. The nation’s surgical mask shortage has triggered an extraordinary response from home inventors, local seamstresses and business leaders. In Billings, Montana, a dentist and a neurosurgeon got to tinkering and created a plastic face mask with a snap-in filter, using a 3-D printer. They’ve now loaded the code as open-source software for any medical professional to use, reported The Billings Gazette. In Las Vegas and Iowa, local residents and seamstresses are stitching homemade masks to donate to local hospitals, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Des Moines Register. And in Seattle, Elon Musk and Tesla dropped a truckload of 50,000 surgical N95 masks off at the home of a University of Washington Medical Center physician, The Seattle Times reported, “no questions asked.”

A CIVIC PIVOT: Democracy advocates, civic leaders, and civic educators are all regrouping as the pandemic moves the whole world online. The democracy reform movement is squarely focused on saving the November election with vote at home and vote-by-mail options, The Fulcrum reported. A plethora of webinars, zoom conferences, and teaching tools have sprung up to rescue civic educators and advocates now doing all work remotely. The National Conversation Project and Weave, the social fabric project at the Aspen Institute, released a set of “prompts, tips and ideas” for “#WeavingCommunity During Crisis.” Citizen University hosted its first Virtual Civic Saturday with Town Hall Seattle on March 28, streamed live on Facebook. Here at The Civic Circle, we are accelerating plans to make our music-based program to teach young students seven “steps to democracy” available online to teachers everywhere. The need for civic learning, and civic commitment, is more urgent than ever.

Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.

This post was distributed via The Civic Circle’s newsletter, The Civic Voice. To sign up, please click HERE, or contact

The Civic Circle is a nonpartisan nonprofit that uses music and drama to teach young kids about democracy, including voting, voluntarism and public leadership.

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