A gun-safety group aligned with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending $1.5 million on a new virtual organizing program that aims to register 100,000 young voters.
The push from Students Demand Action, shared first with CNN, replaces the group’s planned in-person voter-registration efforts, which were derailed by the coronavirus outbreak and the widespread shutdowns it has triggered around the nation. The new program focuses on 13 battleground states and marks the group’s first large-scale effort to use online-only tools to encourage young people to head to the polls.
Across the country, voter registration efforts have been upended by the pandemic, raising concerns that many first-time voters will be left on the sidelines in the 2020 election. Young people in Generation Z, born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are projected to make up about 10% of this year’s eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Presidential election years are the moment when we see the greatest numbers of people moving onto the registration rolls,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In addition to registration at motor vehicle and social service agencies, “churches work to activate congregants, grassroots advocates knock on doors, campuses mobilize students,” she said. “And all of that activity has come to a grinding halt.”
Students Demand Action, which has about 400 chapters and about 200,000 members, was gearing up for a big voter-registration effort on campuses in the spring, said Sarah Green, who oversees student organizing.
“Then schools started closing,” she said.
As part of the new push, the group is adding 17 “virtual” organizers to rally young gun-control activists to conduct “relational canvassing,” cajoling their friends, relatives and acquaintances – all stuck at home themselves – to register to vote. Rather than setting up tables on the campus quad or approaching college students outside the library, the persuasion push now will happen via text message or during video conferencing hangouts.
(Students Demand Action doesn’t actually process any voter-registration forms. Instead, through a partnership with the nonprofit Rock the Vote, students are encouraged to text “FUTURE” to 644-33 to find links on how to register to vote in their states virtually.)
The 13 states targeted by the group – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin – will be key to determining which party controls the White House and US Senate after November’s elections.
Students Demand Action is among the cluster of gun-control groups tied closely to Bloomberg, the billionaire media and financial-data tycoon who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. Those groups include Everytown for Gun Safety and its grassroots arm, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which claims 6 million members. The Everytown umbrella group plans to spend about $60 million to influence federal and state races this year.
On Monday, the group staged a “virtual summit” over the video conferencing app Zoom, attended by more than 240 students and other activists, including celebrities such as “Arrow” actress Katherine MacNamara and professional soccer player Alejandro Bedoya of the Philadelphia Union.
Alanna Miller, who became a gun-safety activist while still in high school, was among them.
The 19-year-old college freshman left Duke University’s campus in Durham, North Carolina, last month when Duke shuttered its dorms in response to the pandemic. Today, she’s back at her parents’ home in the Dallas suburb of Southlake, Texas – taking classes online.
But Miller remains focused on turning out the vote in North Carolina. She’s registered to vote in the Tar Heel State, a perennial presidential battleground. The election handicapper, “The Cook Political Report,” rates North Carolina’s Senate race between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham a toss-up.
“A month ago, I was on a vibrant campus, around people my age all the time. My scenery was changing,” Miller said in an interview with CNN. “Now, I’m doing everything on a laptop in my room.”
Gearing up for the digital push “has been a really good opportunity to have a connection” with other student activists and “alleviate that feeling of loneliness,” Miller said.
In addition to helping the gun-control cause, the students engaged in the voter-registration drive may be helping themselves – as they navigate unprecedented disruption and an uncertain future, Green said.
College and high school students “are feeling isolated,” she said. “They are not getting the type of social interaction they were used to, and they are looking for a connection.”
“Maybe, they’ll look back in a year and say, ‘When the world and the country were in crisis, I had this community and that meant a lot to me.’”