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Despite COVID-19 campaign challenges, community leaders hope young people stay involved in politics

UPDATED: Sat., July 25, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed many college campuses, Jeremiah Paparazzo, 21, was left with questions.

As secretary of the Spokane County Young Democrats, Paparazzo works with political clubs on campuses across the state to engage students in politics and campaigning. But when students were sent home in the middle of an election year, organizations had to quickly find ways to meet over Zoom or engage through social media.

“It’s unknown territory to us,” Paparazzo said.

For many young political clubs, the COVID-19 pandemic meant no more meetings, no more campaigning and no more registering students to vote. But after the death of George Floyd sparked outrage across the country, many young people started to organize: in protests, on social media, through GoFundMe pages.

As the primary and general elections loom, many community leaders are hoping that young people will continue to stay active in politics – despite difficulties in organizing due to COVID-19.

During the spring semester, the Washington State University GOP focused on registering students to vote and volunteering with state and national campaigns, chairman Geordy Greene, 22, said.

Because COVID-19 means no in-person canvassing, Greene said most clubs have switched to phone banking, allowing them to still make calls from home for candidates.

Most of what Greene has done in recent months is try to talk with people through social media to try to expand their club size by the time the fall semester starts. He said it’s a lot of asking, “Who do you know, and do they want to get involved?”

Joanie Sjostrom, co-president of Gonzaga College Republicans, said the pandemic does make it difficult not to have face-to-face communication during campaigning, but there are other ways campaigns can still share their message.

“It’s definitely making people wonder what’s the most efficient way to get across to voters and what’s going to still make people listen,” Sjostrom, 20, said.

For the Spokane County Young Democrats, chairman Nick CastroLang, 30, said their endorsement process, normally an in-person interview, has completely switched to Zoom.

The pandemic forced people to think outside the box about how to communicate, he added.

“What’s been really difficult is everyone went online really abruptly,” CastroLang said.

Although it was a difficult adjustment, CastroLang said Zoom meetings bring together people from all parts of Eastern Washington who would not normally be able to drive to a meeting.

When nationwide protests started after the death of George Floyd, many young organizers and political leaders started to see something else: more young people wanted to get involved. Despite COVID-19, many organizations started to see their membership increase.

CastroLang said he’s seen a lot more people understand that politics doesn’t have to include a political party. Many people are coming to activism for the first time, he said, and the internet is really helping them organize.

“We’re at a tipping point culturally,” he said. “We’re at such an advantage with how people communicate. Social media is a great organizing tool.”

Sjostrom said she has noticed many young people starting to speak out and research politics and form their own opinion. Many college students aren’t interested in politics, she said, so many of the movements sweeping the nation are opening the eyes of a lot of young people.

Danny Villars, 25, said the COVID-19 pandemic showed how much inequality exists in this country. Black Lives Matter protests amplified those feelings and became a political awakening for a lot of people, Villars said.

“Young folks are ready to mobilize and work to change those issues,” said Villars, field director at the Washington Bus, a statewide organization that promotes political access and engagement among young people.

Young people ages 18-24 tend to show the lowest voter turnout among age demographics, according to data from the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

In the 2016 general election, 59% of registered voters in Washington between the ages of 18-24 voted. As age groups get older, voter turnout gradually increases, with nearly 90% of registered voters 65 and older voting in the 2016 general election.

Voter registration shows similar patterns. About 60% of eligible Washington residents between the ages of 18-24 were registered to vote for the 2016 general election compared to about 88% of eligible residents 65 and older.

Villars said the best way to reach young people is to meet them where they are, whether that’s a high school or a college campus.

He said most young people are issue voters, so his organization tries to engage them on issues that matter to them.

“We want to help them realize you can enact change on these issues through voting and other means of participating,” he said.

Duncan Thomson, president of Young Democrats at WSU, said he has seen a lot more online activism than ever before.

“It’s been really cool seeing people start to pay attention and get engaged in a new format that maybe has been limited in the past,” he said.

Greene said he thinks voter turnout will be different this year but that most young people won’t use the pandemic as a reason why they don’t vote.

“People who really want to get out there will vote no matter what,” he said.

Thomson said he is trying to direct attention to local elections that often get overlooked. There seems to be a national mood that it is difficult to enact change on a national level, he said.

“I’m hoping that by showing how effective people can be in local elections, we can get a lot more engagement,” he said.

Paparazzo has attended protests throughout the Spokane area. To his surprise, he said chants for “August 4” – Washington’s primary date – have echoed throughout the crowds. He said he thinks voter turnout will be up this year but that now is the time to keep the momentum going.

“I don’t have all the answers myself,” Paparazzo said. “I want to call on young people everywhere to look for some way to start connecting with other young people.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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