Battle for the Ballot: Students Reflect on the 2020 Election

The constant refreshing of the electoral map and watching states teeter between blue and red agonized Americans for a week in early November. The 2020 election results were decided amid great tension in a highly divided United States, with organizers on all sides trying to secure a win for their respective party. Despite these tensions, the election had record-breaking voter turnout, diverse candidates, and civic engagement from young people. 

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s bipartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) initiative found that young voters were crucial in 11 battleground states, and that youth voter turnout increased from 42 – 44 percent in 2016 to 52 – 55 percent in 2020. Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College, said this phenomenon could be accredited to the increasing willingness of politicians to address young people directly. “Part of the reason that young people hadn’t shown up in the past is nobody was talking to them. They weren’t at the voter polls in the last election. Because they hadn’t voted, politicians didn’t talk to them. And because officials didn’t talk to them, they didn’t show up,” said Solomont. 

While politicians were engaging with young people, young voters in swing states witnessed political pressure in their own communities. Tufts senior Ameenah Rashid said that despite being from a liberal county in Florida, she felt the strength of the political divisions between Floridians: “Back home, I did have conversations with friends who had just barely voted for Biden. If [they] didn’t live in Florida, [they] wouldn’t have voted for him…I also saw a lot of posts from people I knew from high school who were Trump supporters who were offended [by liberal viewpoints].” 

These tensions influenced young people to vote even more. Jen McAndrew, director of communications at Tisch College, explained, “We found [that] young people being active in [and] witnessing movements around racial justice and climate change translated into voter registration and voting.”

In the months leading up to the election, Rashid saw America’s divide on racial justice movements. “This summer when a whole bunch of smaller protests were going on, there’s just one street corner in my town and someone was holding a Black Lives Matter sign…people were throwing things at him, someone called the cops on him, and that corner turned into this very controversial spot in my city. If he wasn’t there, Trump supporters would stand there and hold Trump signs,” she explained. 

Despite being at Tufts when she cast her ballot, Rashid felt the national pressure on voters in swing states. “It was definitely weird voting. All my housemates [are] from the Northeast and it’s weird being like, my vote matters more,” she expressed. 

Tufts students were also involved in the campaigning side of this election. Tufts sophomore Izzy Lobin started working for the Biden campaign in Iowa in January and eventually transitioned to campaigning in Florida over the summer. During his time in the state, Lobin witnessed firsthand the polarization of American politics. “I think at least compared to my school and [home] life, Florida was definitely a shock. I was fortunate enough to work a couple of events, one with Vice President-Elect Harris, and we had counter-protesters outside who, to put it nicely, were very interested in antagonizing us in order to get us to leave our venue,” he said. 

Over the course of the campaign, Lobin realized that politics were not always going to be clean-cut. He recalled, “Right outside the venue Trump supporters were very much in full force, probably 50 or so and like five to 10 signs per person, maskless. You could see the visual tension [at that moment].”

While Lobin was on the ground in Florida, Tufts first-year Alex Dingle was working for Battleground Iowa—an initiative by the Iowa Democratic Party to promote Democratic candidates—right from her dorm room. She got involved because she wanted experience working on political campaigns, and with campaigns being mostly remote, college students like Dingle had the opportunity to volunteer in battleground states while still at school.  

Dingle originally worked for progressive candidate Teresa Greenfield’s Senate campaign. “[During the primaries] we were calling Democrats to sway them into voting specifically for Teresa Greenfield. Those calls were very much either she wasn’t progressive enough, or she was too progressive, which is often a point of contention, like where does the Democratic Party stand?” she said. 

Dingle’s experience with voters echoed a national trend within the Democratic Party. Solomont, who has been a part of Democratic politics for the past 22 years, said, “There’s [virtually] no diversity of thought right now in the Republican Party, and it’s actually a very sad thing. There is diversity in the Democratic Party, and you do have a spectrum of very progressive and moderate.” While this diversity of thought has created room for more progressive candidates and policies, in this election, the ideological divide within the party made it harder for campaigns like the one Dingle worked on to garner support for their candidate. 

Dingle is originally from New York and found it engaging to see the issues Iowans centered their political beliefs around. “In New York, we focus on housing issues, women’s health care, and education. But in Iowa, it was definitely very agricultural focused. I had no idea what goes on in these big plants and production and I had to learn to engage with voters,” she said. 

In key states, youth voters determined whether the state leaned Democrat or Republican. “It’s important to note that young voters are not a monolith. One-third of young voters still voted for Trump,” expressed Solomont. In Iowa, young voters helped the state go red, which Dingle saw in real time through her experience: “Iowa has same day voter registration and a lot of youth showed up and registered to vote Republican, and voted not only for Trump but for other Republican candidates as well.”

In Georgia, however, youth voter engagement helped secure Biden’s victory. “One of the reasons that Biden won Georgia is because young people turned out and voted for him in big numbers. It was young people of color. Young Black voters in Georgia voted 90 percent for Joe Biden, 8 percent for Donald Trump. The share of the electorate of young people in Georgia was the highest in the country,” said Solomont. 

While political polarization and party politics are normal parts of every election cycle, a global pandemic is not. Both Lobin and Dingle cited new challenges campaigns had to face because of the pandemic: “The average age for volunteers is 50 to 70, [and] training 50 to 70-year-olds on making calls on a computer is difficult. Zoom is not the easiest of tasks.” Dingle expressed similar concerns about human interaction while campaigning. “Door-to-door interaction is shown to be the most effective way to garner support for a candidate from a voter. And of course, we couldn’t do that, because COVID was increasingly getting worse and worse as the campaign went on,” she said. 

But COVID also opened people’s eyes about policy problems. “79 percent of the young people we polled said that the pandemic had shown them how important politics was in their daily lives. So one thing [raising turnout] is [the] rising expectation for young people to vote,” said Solomont. 

Lobin believes adapting to COVID will make future campaigns more accessible. “It’ll open up campaigning for years to come and the ability to let people do it from home. The Biden campaign completely revolutionized campaigning virtually,” he said. Digital campaigning decreases the barrier for entry, cultivating more grassroots energy into political races. Virtual events can bring in more voters who previously did not have access to in-person events. 

This election is not over yet. Georgia will vote for its Senate seats in January, where Solomont believes young voters will play a huge role again. As for youth engagement, it hasn’t died down either. According to CIRCLE’s 2020 Youth Electoral Significant Index, Georgia’s Senate races rank among the top 10 elections in which youth voters have the highest potential to influence the outcome. 

“If you look at where communities really mobilized, Georgia is probably the best example. [Their progress, however,] didn’t happen overnight, that’s something people have been working on for 10 years. It’s important to keep in mind that what’s happening is a result of forces that have been at work and will only continue and intensify,” said Solomont.