01 axel andrews virtual event SCREENGRAB
CNN  — 

Axel Andrews appeared on screen, wearing a sequined jacket and a matching purple wig.

“Can I get a woot woot?” the drag queen asked, leading the virtual audience to celebrate in the comments section.

Andrews has done other virtual shows since the coronavirus pandemic hit. But, along with other performers convened on Twitch, the drag queen had a specific message to this group on Friday night.

“Make sure you are registered to vote. When you get that little thing in the mail, it makes you feel good about yourself, that you have taken your voting rights to heart, and that you are able to use those rights,” said Andrews, during NextGen Florida and Omni’s “Stay and Slay” virtual drag show. A key player in Orlando’s nightlife scene, Andrews survived the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

All attendees were encouraged to get in touch with their lawmakers about the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ rights.

While the coronavirus pandemic has emptied college campuses and put a pause on social gatherings, one thing remains the same: the commitment from young people on both sides of the aisle to voter registration and get-out-the-vote initiatives. A cadre of digitally-apt organizations are devising ways to register and mobilize new voters in the face of Covid-19, including celebrity packed “digital hubs” and virtual town halls with well-known politicians, but they face an uphill battle against voting processes that vary on a state-by-state basis.

Youth groups across the country are recreating their in-person events online. NextGen America also held Earth Day rallies in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” the video game that has become a staple for many people staying home. March For Our Lives’ digital events have featured special guests such as Rep. Lucy McBath, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Ed Markey.

In this screengrab from Animal Crossing New Horizon, NextGen Nevada holds a voter registration rally on Earth Day, April 21, 2020.

Meanwhile, Turning Point Action – the c4 sister organization to Turning Point USA, the largest and fastest growing conservative youth movement, which includes Students for Trump – hosted virtual town halls to rally Trump’s youth-voter base: one with guest speakers Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, another with Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko and author David Harris Jr., as well as Charlie Kirk and Ryan Fournier, chairman and co-chair respectively of Students for Trump.

TX Votes, a non-partisan voter registration group based at the University of Texas at Austin, tells CNN they registered 7,000 voters during the 2019-20 school year prior to the coronavirus pandemic. It has plans to drop into Zoom classes and build course modules through Canvas, the online platform where many of their virtual classes are based, to educate students on the voter registration process during online classes this summer, leading up to Texas’ July 14 run-off election.

And, even if learning is remote, conference-wide campus voting competitions such as the Big 10 Voting Challenge and Ivy League Votes, which encourage schools to register the most voters, plan to mobilize student turnout through their sports rivalries with banter on Twitter.

The efforts come after Gen Z and Millennial voters were a driving force behind record high voter turnout in the 2018 midterms, with young people turning out at 31%, the highest recorded in a quarter-century, according to estimates by Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The group also estimates that this past Super Tuesday, youth turnout remained high compared to past election cycles. The youth vote could soar again this November.

“Young people have the potential to be the most powerful voting block of any age demographic, and in these quarantine times, young people are the most tech and digital savvy,” said Katie Eder, founder and executive director of Future Coalition, a network of youth activists dedicated to connecting youth leaders and organizations across the country. “If we work together and think about how to connect resources and organizers across the country, we will hopefully be really influential in the elections in November.”

Meeting voters where they are

The team behind Rock the Vote, which powers the online voter registration efforts of more than 1,100 voter organizations, feels a responsibility to lead a virtual voter registration push. This initiative could mitigate the hurdles and confusion first time voters face as a result of Covid-19. The non-partisan group created an election reminder program, which sends personalized updates on upcoming voting dates and deadlines along with resources and polling place information to anyone who registers using their registration tool. These days, that information is constantly changing.

“So much of what we do is meeting the voters where they are: online,” Carolyn Dewitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, told CNN.

Like other Americans, students across the country are feeling the first-hand effects of the pandemic, something that organizers believe could affect how and why they may vote in November.

“More and more young people have realized that if we want leaders who will listen to us and advocate for us, we need to be the ones to elect them. Covid-19 is making this even more apparent, and I believe this is going to bring an entirely new wave of young people who are ready to get involved,” Eder, of Future Coalition, told CNN.

This November, one in 10 eligible voters will be between the ages of 18 and 23, according to the Pew Research Center.

“So many young people are in a transient place right now – kicked out of their dorms, some are home with family. So many have lost jobs, are taking care of people they love, are struggling,” Taryn Hallweaver, a student field director with Sunrise Movement, told CNN in a statement.

Hallweaver made the case for vote-by-mail come November.

“It was already way too hard to vote in this country before Covid-19 hit and now there’s no excuse why we don’t have vote-by-mail for every single 18+ citizen,” Hallweaver said.

Demonstrated interest in digital registration

A wide view of the campus lawn at Columbia University during the coronavirus pandemic on April 14, 2020 in New York City.

Without physically being on campus, voter registration groups lose the level of accountability that comes with in-person registration.

“The issue is even pre-COVID, so many states were living in the dark ages around voter registration,” Hallweaver told CNN. “Now the complexity of a patchwork of vote-by-mail policies is making things even more confusing.”

But in the midst of Covid-19, voter registration groups are committed to helping new and student voters navigate the inconsistent voter registration process. Since the pandemic, there has been strong interest in online voter registration tools and sites such as Rock the Vote, TurboVote, and Vote.org.

In recent weeks, Rock the Vote held a number of webinars for field organizers pivoting to online efforts.

“The webinars combined 400 attendees and organizations,” Dewitt told CNN.

Vote.org saw an “almost immediate uptick” in requests for absentee ballots and their site is beginning to see traffic “52 times what it was at this time in 2018,” Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org, told CNN.

Although Vote.org has no specific way to track student engagement on their site, “the site skews toward a younger audience,” Hailey said.

“Newly registered voters are entering the age of being able to vote, so they haven’t been touched yet. Switching to digital and thinking about the tools and platforms with which to reach young people will provide creative tactics to potentially mobilize more young people moving forward,” Eder told CNN.

Eder is brainstorming innovative techniques for voter registration outreach on platforms such as TikTok.

Hallweaver echoed the ease of going digital.

“We’re a youth movement, so not being able to talk with students on campuses or our neighbors face-to-face is obviously a big blow, but the transition to online-only organizing has been relatively smooth,” she told CNN.

The efforts have fallen not only to these organizations, but institutions as well. In recent years, there has been a strong push for schools and universities to register their students to vote. Students Learn Students Vote, a coalition of over 400 non-partisan partners who lead voter-registration on over 1,700 campuses, started their “Campus Takeover” push on National Voter Registration Day in 2014. That year, 49 campuses took participated. In 2019, 550 campuses took part in that same challenge.

Universities across the country are weaving voter registration in their new student orientation programs, according to groups such as Students Learn Students Vote and Campus Vote Project. Even if collegiate life remains online this fall, institutions with online orientations around the country will include voter registration as a part of their virtual planning.

TurboVote notes “excitement from our campus partners as they pivot to doing civic engagement online,” said Mike Ward, vice president of voter engagement at Democracy Works, which powers TurboVote.

While young people across party lines agree that they miss in-person contact in voter registration, youth-led groups saw a seamless transition to digital organizing and remain optimistic about the novel opportunity virtual organizing presents.

From the start of the 2020 election cycle, Turning Point Action’s voter registration messaging has consistently been to register and turn out for the President.

“Young voters should be given the opportunity to participate in a voting experience that is as normal as possible to ensure their voice is heard without impediment,” Tyler Bowyer, chief operations officer at Turning Point Action and Turning Point USA, told CNN in a statement.

Turning Point Action hopes students will be back on campuses in the fall, and if not, that students will be able to vote “in person” if they’re at home.

“Clearly, it’s less fun to register voters online, we are ready for business to return to normal. Our registration activities were always going to be a hybrid of online and in-person, so the crisis has forced us to embrace the online tactics more aggressively, but there isn’t really a previous benchmark to compare against,” Bowyer told CNN in a statement. “It’s a whole new GOTV world.”