As the November general election approaches, University of Virginia students search for civic engagement opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic. While in prior years volunteers on Grounds recruited voters as thousands passed on their way to classes or dining halls, social distancing requirements have driven most campaign efforts online. Nevertheless, Virginia students remain politically engaged. Both partisan and nonpartisan initiatives share at least one common purpose — to enlist their peers as participants in the democratic process.
Kiera Goddu, a fourth-year student and current president of the University Democrats, explained her organization’s plans for supporting Democratic candidates like Cameron Webb this November.
“We are shifting to an almost completely virtual campaign strategy,” Goddu said in a written statement to WUVA News. “We are emphasizing text-banking, phone contacts, registering voters online and through other CIOs. Students can get involved in many different ways. They can get involved in partisan organizations like UDems, they can encourage their organizations and halls to run voter registration drives, and they can participate in the class voter registration competition through Student Council. We are also hoping to organize rides to the polls on election day and rides to the registrars’ offices for students who want to vote early in-person.”
The College Republicans, led by fourth-year student Christopher Tomlin, are also adapting to the realities of the pandemic.
“With the exception of our online-only interest meeting, we will be holding hybrid meetings on a weekly basis until further notice,” Tomlin said in a statement. “Some members will be able to attend in person while others will have to watch via Zoom at alternate locations…Fortunately, our campaign efforts will be largely unimpacted [sic], as remote calling and texting remain possible and plenty of resume-worthy opportunities are being offered by our campaign partners. I am confident that the community we have built in UVA CRs is fully prepared to meet the challenges that this year will carry.”
Groups like the University Democrats and College Republicans are most widely-known for their political focus, but several others are also operating on Grounds in anticipation of the November election. Adam Cooper, a fourth-year student majoring in Political Philosophy, Policy & Law (PPL), co-founded the Decency Project. Cooper described how his largely-digital grassroots organization — inspired by the Lincoln Project and in support of Democratic candidate Joe Biden — provides an opportunity for students to get involved while keeping safe during the pandemic.
Cooper described an unexpected silver lining related to COVID-19.
“It’s always important for young people to be engaged in elections, particularly when the stakes are so high,” Cooper said in a statement. “The current pandemic, oddly enough, actually makes it easier to participate in civic activity ahead of November’s election. For anyone who is able to do so, phone banking, digital outreach efforts, and listening to public officials and activists can all be done from home. Additionally, young people make up a significant part of our country’s electorate, but often do not vote. The Decency Project is working to tackle this issue, while also endorsing the candidate who we believe will make progress possible.”
Challenges associated with COVID-19 require the political participation of low-risk, young, and healthy individuals to enable full participation in the general election. Many of the older Americans who typically manage polling places, yet are at higher risk for serious illness during the pandemic, have withdrawn. A national election worker shortage threatens to cause longer lines, poll closures, and fewer opportunities for people to vote in person as a result. In response, Virginia students, including third-year student Jack Feenick, are recruiting poll workers — most of whom will be paid for their efforts — through nonpartisan organizations Power the Polls and Campus Compact.
Feenick explained why he decided to recruit poll workers and get involved with politics during an unconventional election cycle.
“I mainly got involved because I was looking for a way to volunteer virtually this semester and think it is really important that we make sure the voting process for this election is safe and fair,” Feenick said.
Tomlin outlined the steps that students should take if interested in joining the College Republicans.
“Despite current circumstances, we are incredibly excited for the upcoming year and particularly about welcoming incoming fellow conservatives,” Tomlin said. “Anyone interested in CRs is encouraged to stop by our virtual ‘table’ at either the HackCville activities fair (12-3PM on August 28th) or the StudCo fair (1-3PM on August 30th) to receive information and have any questions answered. Finally, our interest meeting, which will feature a prominent Virginia Republican to be announced in the coming days, will be held on September 3rd at 7PM via Zoom. We encourage anyone interested to follow us on social media and direct any questions to email@example.com.”
For students interested in the Decency Project, Cooper explained how they might engage with the organization.
“The Decency Project recently launched our Fellowship Program, which can be found on our website,” Cooper said. “We’re looking for graphic designers, video producers, and marketing advisors to help us grow our work. Also, our project has created a new way to organize online through our coordinated social media blitzes. Everyone on our team posts a selected Decency Project video at the same time across social media platforms in order to maximize the viral capacity of our message. Our first blitz had an estimated 700 participants, and we’d love to grow this number as well. Please email me if you have any other questions!”
To learn more about becoming a poll worker, click here.