Driving home from work last winter, Lindsay Morgenstein had an idea. “What if I just didn’t go to school next fall?” she remembers thinking.
Morgenstein, then a sophomore, started considering alternatives to a semester abroad after realizing that her junior fall would coincide with the 2020 election. For Morgenstein, who wasn’t old enough to vote in 2016, sitting on the sidelines of another presidential election was out of the question.
“I'm not going to be in another country for the 2020 election––that's the most important election I'll vote in, in probably forever,” she said. “The idea that I would be in another country frolicking around while the most important thing that I could think of was happening at home was not it for me.”
When she got home, Morgenstein emailed her dean to request a leave of absence for fall 2020. After talking to a friend who was working for the Kamala Harris presidential campaign in Iowa, she decided that organizing would be the most meaningful way to spend her time away from campus. Now that COVID-19 has dramatically changed the nature of this semester, as well as the presidential election, Morgenstein is confident that her work for Planned Parenthood Votes in North Carolina is making a difference.
“As soon as I found out that organizing was the thing that would actually win elections and create change then I was like, ‘Well, this is something that I need to do, since I'm able to and I have nothing that could be more important for me to do right now than organizing,’” she said.
Morgenstein is not the only Duke student who traded the classroom for the campaign trail this semester. Some, like her, had long had the fall of 2020 earmarked for a leave of absence from Duke for election-related work. For others, the decision came in response to COVID-19, after a spring and summer filled with Zoom meetings and a lack of clarity from Duke about what the fall semester would look like on campus.
Junior Dora Pekec had planned to study abroad this semester, but after Duke announced in June that all fall study abroad programs would be canceled, she began to consider other plans. Pekec first considered campaign work when a friend working on a Senate campaign posted about job openings on Twitter this summer.
Duke’s announcement in late July that only first-years and sophomores would be permitted to live on campus made the decision even easier.
“That [announcement] really pushed me to go after it,” Pekec said.
Duke’s late-breaking announcement also made junior Allison Janowski’s decision to take time off much easier. Janowski worked as an organizer for the Democratic Party of Virginia while in high school and, like Morgenstein, had always considered taking time off from school to get involved politically.
“It was looking every day more and more like this semester wasn’t going to be great,” she said. “I figured this was sort of a natural next step for me and something that I've always been interested in and passionate about. This was the best time in my life to do it, which happens to coincide with a crucial election.”
After learning that they likely wouldn’t be able to return to campus in the fall, both Pekec and Janowski requested leaves of absence for the semester and dove into the interview process for campaigns.
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On Aug. 15, Pekec moved to Portland, Maine to work as a field organizer for Sara Gideon, a Democrat challenging Susan Collins (R-Maine), a four-term senator who has been criticized for her support of the Trump administration despite her reputation as one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate.
Janowski is organizing in Kentucky for Amy McGrath, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in one of the country’s most high-profile races.
While COVID-19 has changed what a typical day for a field organizer looks like, the goal of reaching as many potential voters as possible remains the same.
“I was expecting to mostly be knocking on doors and working in a campaign office, and instead I'm working out of my childhood bedroom, calling voters instead of knocking on their doors.” Morgenstein said.
Because of low COVID-19 case counts in Maine, Pekec is able to work from a field office sometimes, although the atmosphere has changed significantly from the typical frenzied final weeks of a close race. “Usually there would be interns and volunteers everywhere, with the field office always super packed, and now there’s a few desks spaced out 15 feet apart,” she said.
Like Pekec, Janowski was able to move to the area she is working in, though in-person opportunities are more limited because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Much of Janowski’s work now deals with voter education and helping voters obtain correct information about how they can cast their ballot. Kentucky attracted national attention when it held its primary election in June after dramatically reducing the number of available polling locations due to COVID-19 concerns.
“There's a lot of hurdles for people to actually make it to the polls this year, so it's just so important that we're making sure people actually know how they can physically go and vote, since there's been so many changes on that end,” she said.
Although these students took the semester off entirely, other students are balancing campaign work with their class schedules.
Senior Jimmy Toscano is working as a fellow for the North Carolina Democratic Party and is also working for Matt Cartwright, a House Democrat running for reelection in Pennsylvania. Most days, Toscano spends almost three hours on the phone and makes at least 200 phone calls to voters.
Although adding in election work on top of part-time classwork is demanding, Toscano credits his coworkers with understanding the tricky balancing act of class, COVID-19 and the election.
“A lot of people are just doing this because they're passionate about it,” he said. “That's the attitude of volunteers too––just do your best––and that’s all they can really ask.”
September and October are crunch time in election years. As Nov. 3 approaches, the pressure increases and hours get longer, but organizers still say they appreciate the change of pace from the nonstop grind of the academic calendar.
Morgenstein is currently working 50 hours a week and expects that number to rise to 80 or more as the election approaches. “I'm so much busier than I have ever been before, but it’s the good kind of busy where I'm actually doing things that matter,” she said. “I'm not sitting in the library moping—I'm talking to voters and building a plan for how they want to be engaged civically in the future.”
The student organizers say that working with voters and volunteers, even while stuck at home, remains the most rewarding part of the job.
Janowski has found it easier to connect with potential volunteers and encourage them to get involved.
“Being able to say you can literally change the outcome of this election from your living room, that's a big sell for people,” she explained. “They don't have to go out and do anything other than click the link on their computer. We're really promoting the idea that especially now, you can make a difference from anywhere.”
After a spring and summer filled with virtual classes and Zoom meetings for her internship, Pekec is happy to have a chance for more interactive work. “It's kind of weird to go from class and nothing else or a virtual internship to something that's very hands-on and talking to people all the time,” she said.
“That was really important to me—to be able to meet other organizers in person, work with them in an office, and actually get to speak to people on the phone,” Pekec continued.
After Election Day comes and goes, organizers anticipate returning to school in the spring with new skills and a fresh perspective.
“It's been a fun exercise in how good I can be at selling people on things on the phone,” Morgenstein said of her organizing work. “Now I can convince anybody of pretty much anything in less than three minutes.”
As for her return to school?
“I think it's going to be a tough transition, going from working insane hours for something that really matters to going back to like the mundane everyday life of school, which now just seems kind of boring,” she 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.