RICHMOND -- Tuesday marks National Voter Registration Day, and volunteers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond are working online and in-person to get out the student vote.
Get-out-the-vote groups are holding events that allow students to register to vote in-person and follow social distancing guidelines, according to the VCU Votes Advisory Council. The council is a group of faculty, students, and employees that coordinates voter engagement events and education. Registration will also occur online through virtual information sessions and class visits.
The university also launched a website with explainer information on all aspects of voting, and the site also features a countdown until the polls close along with commentary and analysis by VCU faculty. Students can register to vote online through the site or find polling locations for the Nov. 3 presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic opponent Joe Biden.
Polls opened Sept. 18, and Virginia residents have until Oct. 13 to register to vote. For student voters, however, just registering to vote may have its own concerns.
“Students need to make a plan,” said Jacqueline Smith-Mason, co-chair of VCU Votes Advisory Council. “Students who do not make a plan may run into barriers on Election Day.”
The push to register over 1 million voters on Tuesday will be fueled with the help of 100 partners, including the NAACP, Target, and Airbnb, along with 4,500 community groups hosting virtual and in-person events.
Nearly 3 million U.S. voters have previously registered to vote on National Voter Registration Day, which launched in 2012. The campaign registered 1.3 million total voters in 2018 and 2019, according to the organization’s website. More than 6,000 Virginians registered to vote online last year during National Voter Registration Day, according to a campaign report. Volunteers also registered more than 1,000 people in the field.
Only half of eligible college students voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. That number reflects a three percentage point participation increase from the 2012 election. However, more than 60% of VCU students voted in the 2016 election.
The Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to provide voter registration information to encourage student turnout in elections.
“Step one is voter registration, step two is providing information, and step three is to encourage students to exercise their right to vote,” Smith-Mason said.
Voter registration laws vary from state to state. Without accurate information, students are subject to voter suppression and may not be able to vote, said Madeline Doane, Virginia coordinator of the Campus Vote Project, which partners with colleges and universities to help students register to vote.
For example, changing a mailing address, having an incorrect ID, or an inability to access polling locations may inhibit students from voting. Students registering to vote in Virginia for the first time must do so at least 22 days before the election. They also may run into an issue if they do not have a state ID. A state ID is not required at the polls, but an identification number must be provided when students register online. If someone doesn’t have a state ID, they must mail in a voter registration form, according to Doane.
After the student is registered, they can participate in the Nov. 3 election through voting absentee or at an in-person polling location.
Nicole O’Donnell, an assistant public relations professor at VCU, teaches an honors-level VCU Votes course to promote voter registration.
“Our class is a campaign exclusively on social media to promote registration,” O’Donnell said. “During COVID-19, we do not register students in-person, so reaching people with our message online is our main concern.”
The class previously required students to participate in in-person voter registration events, but that is no longer required due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a news release.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll receive a huge increase in voter turnout this year,” O’Donnell said.