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OU students push to increase voter registration despite pandemic roadblocks

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OU graduate Destinee Dickson and Norman Mayor Breea Clark at a voter registration event in 2019.

In a normal presidential election year, voter registration tables would be littered over campus. Debate watch parties would be in a large room with tons of passionate current and soon-to-be voters gathered hours before it even began. 

This year, similar events are in new, virtual settings due to COVID-19. 

As the presidential election nears, groups like Oklahoma Votes have continued encouraging voter registration in the OU community, and transitioned to online events in an attempt to reach more people during the pandemic.

The virtual space comes with its own set of challenges, though. Without a way for new voters to fill out a physical form, Kamryn Yanchick, a political science and Native American studies junior and one of the civic engagement fellows for Oklahoma Votes, said the organization has had to come up with new ways to get people to register, including the creation of a new Canvas module.

“We now have a Canvas module that instructors can add to their Canvas page. We are really encouraging all professors to add it to their Canvas page,” Yanchick said.  “It really is a comprehensive guide on how to get registered and how to navigate voting during the pandemic. It has a lot of really great information.”

Oklahoma Votes has also put out a new program called TurboVote, in which community members can register to vote completely online without needing to go to one of their booths. Anyone can enter their information and receive a printable PDF ready to go, or they  can get the ballot mailed directly to them, with a stamp and envelope included for when they send it back.

“We’re really excited about it because it is accessible to those who might not be able to meet us in person,” Yanchick said. “Anyone who is eligible to vote will have some benefit from this website.”

Yanchick also said Oklahoma Votes workers are still motivated this year in regard to the work they are doing, despite the pandemic’s challenges.

“People are still dedicated because it is a challenge, it’s hard because it poses more barriers to us, but it’s still motivating because we know it isn’t just a challenge for us,” Yanchick said. “It is challenging but extra motivating because there is definitely a need that needs to be met.”

Lily Baizer, a public relations freshman, said as an interested first-time voter, she appreciated the work that Oklahoma Votes is doing for voter registration.

"The process of registering was really easy, and it was great because I had already been looking for a place to register so it was convenient,” Baizer said. “All I had to do was fill out some forms and I was done. 

Tyler Johnson, director of graduate studies in the department of political science, said he predicts an increase in mail-in voting this year due to the pandemic, and that increase could also cause a delay in election results.

“Normally we know who wins the election the night of the election,” Johnson said. “We have now had some instances in primaries, because of mail-in voting, where it takes a week or two to determine the winner. That sets up a potentially weird world where, if the presidential election is close, and the balance of power rests on these close races, I think it’s going to be a strange election night if we don’t really have a sense of who the winner is.”

Johnson said Oklahoma polling places have been growing recently to accommodate more people.

“There have been a few instances across the country of elections opening up big facilities, like Chesapeake Energy Arena, with booths all over (and) spread out, and little moves like that might make people a lot more comfortable showing up and voting like that,” Johnson said. 

Recently, OU’s Student Government Association passed a bill that would allow an early voting polling site on campus to make voting more accessible to students, because the closest voting site is three miles from the residence halls. The creation of the on-campus polling place now awaits approval from the Cleveland County Election Board. 

In recent years, the amount of college students who are voting has gradually risen with each election. According to a report by the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, voter registration rate on OU’s campus rose from 72 percent to 76 percent, and voting rate rose from 41.1 percent to 48.6 percent. According to the report, mail-in voting also increased between 2012 and 2016.

“I think that election boards and states have tried their hardest to convince people that voting in-person is safe, but here are the other options out there if you so choose,” Johnson said. “So we’re seeing a lot more discussion and promotion of the possibilities of voting by mail, early voting, things of that nature, so that folks can avoid a situation where they show up to the polling place and see hundreds of people there.”

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