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Community outreach, online events: Student political groups gear up for an election during a pandemic

<p>Duke Votes, Duke Students for Biden and Duke Democrats are finding creative ways to get out the vote during a pandemic.</p>

Duke Votes, Duke Students for Biden and Duke Democrats are finding creative ways to get out the vote during a pandemic.

With a presidential election just around the corner, Duke’s student political groups are working to mobilize the youth vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without the option of hosting in-person programming this fall, groups like Duke Votes, Duke Students for Biden and Duke Democrats are working hard to facilitate creative virtual events aimed at getting out the vote.

Duke Votes

Duke Votes is a non-partisan student-run organization focused on registering Duke students to vote. 

Students often have to update their voter registration when they move from East to West Campus or to North Carolina, a process that has been particularly confusing because of coronavirus-related changes. Duke Votes aims to help students easily navigate all aspects of the registration process.

“As a historically low-turnout group, students have the potential to make a huge impact if they do go out and vote,” said Duke Votes Chair Jessica Sullivan, a senior. 

In the absence of large events, Duke Votes is focusing on community-oriented outreach. One of their primary initiatives is a voting information sign-up tool. Students answer questions about where they currently live and whether they intend to vote with their campus or home address, and the organization will send them information tailored to their specific voting situation.

“At its core we’re still doing the same community-oriented outreach as we did in 2018. We have the same mission and guiding principles, it’s just that the methods of doing that have changed,” Sullivan said.

In addition to voter registration drives and other virtual events, Duke Votes has partnered with student groups who can pledge to register 100% of their eligible members, and with resident assistants who distribute information to their residents. 

“We’re trying to do more person-to-person contact, so we’re having people reach out to their friends and their communities, and do it more on an individual level,” Sullivan explained. 

Duke Students for Biden

Sara Tavakolian said that Duke Students for Biden was formed at the beginning of the summer as a “coalition of students on Duke’s campus who are really passionate about voting for Joe Biden this November.” The organization has four executive members—Tavakolian, senior Rahul Krishnaswamy and sophomores Jack Kochansky and Daniel Marshall—as well as almost 1,000 Instagram followers, as of early Thursday, and a rapidly growing GroupMe chat.

Over a Zoom meeting, Krishnaswamy stressed the importance of simply getting Duke students out to vote, stating that “if every single young voter in North Carolina… voted, North Carolina would not even be in contention. This would be solid Joe.”

Duke Students for Biden has four major objectives: educating students on political issues, making sure students are registered to vote, getting students excited about a Biden presidency, and engaging with North Carolina voters at large through phone banking and texting.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the organization has had to do online speaker, voter registration and phone banking events. 

“It’s been a lot more virtual,” Marshall said in response to how their programming has been different as a result of Covid-19. “We have a pretty big social media presence.”

Krishnaswamy emphasized that “over the last couple of elections Duke’s turnout has been kind of sad,” but “there is no reason why [Duke students] can’t be leaders for everyone else.” 

The executive team hopes that Duke’s voter turnout will improve this year. “I think we can get our turnout up to 60, 70, maybe 80%, which would be amazing,” Krishnaswamy said.

Duke Democrats

Duke Democrats helps left-leaning students get involved in politics on and off campus. Anyone can sign up for their weekly Political Blast email that contains information about events and initiatives organized by democratic groups such as the Durham Democratic party, Swing NC and Duke Students for Biden.

Duke Democrats also provides a way for liberal students to network and find job and internship opportunities in the Democratic political sphere.

Echoing other leaders of student political groups, senior James Toscano, a member of Duke Democrats, said that political organizing looks very different right now. 

“In the past, we would have things like phone banks in person, which were fun because you got to meet people instead of feeling like you’re making calls into the void by yourself. We also would do voter registration events and set up tables around campus. All those things you can’t do anymore,” Toscano said.

For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote N.C., a collaborative between The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.

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