Ahead of the first presidential debate in late September, the College Republicans at UCF posted a bingo card on Instagram with spaces reading, "Trump calls Biden 'sleepy Joe,'" "Candidates share an awkward elbow bump," and, "Moderator can't control the debate."

The pandemic created a need for a revamp of the group's website and a stronger focus on virtual strategy to connect with students, said its president, Didi Malka. Among the changes: A social media manager was added to the board of directors.

"In terms of social media, we have definitely upped the ante," he said.

Hannah Anton, president of College Democrats at UCF, said the organization recently hosted a Q&A on Zoom with Orange- Osceola state attorney candidate Monique Worrell, who won the Democratic primary in August.

"As an organization, it's really important to us, not only to obviously amplify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and their ticket but also to be focusing on our down-ballot Democrats," said Anton, a 20-year-old political science junior.

Student political organizations, typically known for canvassing on campus with voter registration clipboards in hand, have been forced by COVID-19 and distance learning to adopt virtual tactics as they try to keep young voters engaged ahead of Election Day.

That means a newfound reliance on social media, Zoom video calls and phone banks to reach the younger demographic, who make up a significant segment of registered voters, but historically have often failed to turn out.

Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and nationally recognized voting expert, provided the Orlando Sentinel with Florida voter registration statistics organized by age group. Of the 2.5 million registered voters ages 18 to 29, 38% are Democrats, 25% are Republicans and 35% are not affiliated with a party.

"Young voters in Florida, as in the rest of the country, disproportionately register as Democrats and as independents. Joe Biden would get a tremendous boost in the Sunshine State if young voters turned out to vote," he said. "But that's always a big if."

Kevin Wagner, Florida Atlantic University political science department chair and professor, said social media has become a catalyst of political conversation for young and older voters alike.

"Increasingly, a lot of the outreach is social media, not just for young people but also older voters increasingly are on places like Facebook, and younger voters on Instagram or TikTok," Wagner said. "All those platforms have become fertile grounds for political outreach."

Rallying voters through texts, Zoom

Phone banking and text banking, which students tend to be more receptive to, have grown in importance since organizations can't canvas on campus, Anton said. With early voting underway, upcoming banks will focus on helping students with their voting plans and providing information.

"People are realizing that politics isn't just like a bunch of talking heads that have no impact in their life," Anton said. "I think COVID has really shown not only young people but Americans in general how important local elections are."

Like their peers on the other side of the aisle, UCF's College Republicans have also hosted registration drives, spoken with local candidates virtually and promoted Zoom watch parties for debates.

"These debates are always super entertaining, especially when you have Trump involved," said Malka, a 20-year-old psychology junior. "Whatever we can do to help make the process of getting involved in politics and researching and listening to candidates, we're going to do our best to make it an enjoyable experience."

Among the Republican student group's top priorities, Malka said, are defeating an amendment to Florida's constitution that would raise the minimum wage to $15 and passing another that would allow independents and third-party voters to cast ballots in primary elections.

Anton said criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention are among the UCF Democrats' top issues this election cycle.

The student branch of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, a national nonpartisan network of student-run nonprofits, has been helping College Democrats and College Republicans mobilize young voters, said Isabel Muir, UCF's campus organizer for PIRG.

"We work at college campuses across the U.S. to train students on becoming the activists of our generation," said Muir, a recent graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. "They need the tools and skills to be able to make that immediate change."

The organization recruited about 30 interns at UCF to help with initiatives such as partnering with Greek life to register students at virtual chapter meetings and spearheading a competition with a $500 prize to the chapter that registered the most voters, she said.

PIRG members have also spoken at the beginning of UCF virtual classes to answer questions and help students register, with a special focus on STEM students who tend to be less likely to participate in elections, Muir said.

Virtual peer-to-peer contact is one voting tactic that's continued despite the coronavirus, Muir said. Friends can still call friends to encourage them to vote and start "a chain reaction of communication."

As of Oct. 1, the 18-to-25-year-olds made up 13% of registered voters in Orange County, including 49,354 registered Democrats, 19,082 registered Republicans and 40,091 with no party affiliation.

UCF, one of the nation's largest universities, increased its student voting rate by almost 23 percentage points from 2014 to 2018, according to a study by Tuft's University, with 48% of students participating in 2018. Black students voted more than any other racial or ethnic group, at 54%.

Wagner said the youth vote has historically not held much weight in elections because of low voter turnout. A recent exception to this rule happened when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

"If the youth vote, they can certainly make a difference, especially in close states like Florida and in the industrial Midwest," he said.

Some young voters say the two major-party candidates have failed to persuade them.

Peyton Shelton, a registered Libertarian and 20-year-old graphic design junior at the University of Florida, said he isn't planning to vote for Biden or President Donald Trump, despite others telling him that any other vote is a waste. The Alachua County resident plans to support the Libertarian candidate for president, Jo Jorgensen.

Shelton said he viewed the first Biden-Trump debate as a "train wreck" that "confirmed my beliefs that I don't want to vote for either of these two people." He said his political views stem from not enjoying being told what to do, especially by the government.

"The only way that we're going to get rid of the two-party system is by voting for third parties," Shelton said. "I think that'd be really great, just for democracy in general."

Roy Covington, a 20-year-old political science and information studies senior at the University of South Florida, had hoped U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders would win the Democratic primary.

Covington, an executive board member with the Young Democratic Socialists of America at USF, said he's not sure whom he'll vote for. He hesitates to support Biden, citing a sexual assault allegation against him by a former Senate aide. While Trump also faces sexual assault allegations, Covington said he feels like he's forced to choose between two evils.

As a Black, first-generation college student, he said he also struggles with the country's failures to address the inequity between wealth and social classes.

"I've decided for myself personally that not only is that not right, but I think it is necessary and ethical for someone to work toward a more equal society," he said.


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