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Hey Congress, Student Voters Are Watching How You Handle COVID-19

And with youth voter turnout up overall, what you do could impact your November re-election

By Max Lubin

In an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, millions of college students have sacrificed campus housing, employment, and health services — and for those without WiFi or a computer at home, even the new online classes meant to take the place of their in-person lessons. Students were already struggling to meet their basic needs before the outbreak, and sudden campus closures are making things much worse unless politicians step up right now to help. If our elected representatives are not persuaded to stand up for students’ needs, they should remember that student voters will help decide if they keep their jobs in November.

In 2018, college students and young voters more broadly helped elect the youngest and most diverse Congress in history. This year, this group of voters is similarly poised to decide the election: Overall, youth voter turnout is up in the primaries compared to past cycles, suggesting it will rise even higher in the general election.

And while the youth vote matters everywhere, it can have that much more impact in key battleground states. There are approximately 1.2 million college students registered to vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — states which President Donald Trump narrowly won by a combined 77,744 votes in 2016. These swing states helped decide the last general election, which means that winning over the college student voters who vote there is key for any 2020 candidate, let alone the president.

And those voters are among the most impacted by the response to COVID-19, and among the most hungry for change. Already several colleges and universities have asked all students to leave with little notice, cut back on-campus jobs, and left students stranded with nowhere to go and no way of getting there. Yet students are also suffering in part as a result of how President Trump has handled the response to this pandemic. Among other things, he stalled crucial testing in the first weeks of the crisis, reportedly because he believed that higher infection numbers would hurt his reelection in the fall. If we were in a group project with the president for a “How to Stop Coronavirus 101” course, not only would we fail the class but we might also be suspended for not taking the project seriously.

But where some leaders are falling short, others are stepping up. In Congress, Senator Patty Murray introduced legislation to provide $1.2 billion in emergency financial aid to students displaced by this crisis. Our team at Rise, a student advocacy nonprofit organization I co-founded, has sent more than 2,000 letters to Congress and the Trump administration demanding action on the legislation — a campaign we built in partnership with Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit dedicated to ending campus hunger. We also worked with Believe in Students and Edquity to launch a navigation hub at StudentReliefFund.org in order to help students find emergency financial aid or local resources, like food pantries or rental assistance.

As the pandemic grows, so too will the consequences. Early estimates show that 18 percent of workers have already been laid off or had hours cut back. Students are especially vulnerable to these cuts by nature of their work being part-time and often campus-dependent. Moreover, students’ abilities to not just survive this pandemic but also remain on track to graduate and contribute to the recovery is essential. As signs increasingly point to the likelihood of a global recession, we need additional workers with postsecondary degrees (who are more likely to be protected from economic shocks), and we need stronger colleges and universities to absorb high unemployment.

These intertwining crises are why local, state, and federal politicians must act right now. We need sweeping changes such as eliminating tuition and fees, forgiving student loan debt, expanding basic needs programs, and boosting funding for colleges and universities — especially community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and historically Black colleges and universities.

We know these steps are the right thing to do not just for students, but also to boost the economy. But we have also seen politicians prioritize reelection over doing the right thing time after time. That’s why I want to emphasize to our elected officials that keeping their job depends on how they respond to college students’ needs — right now, and in the future.

Control of the U.S. Senate will be decided in places like Arizona — which is home to Arizona State University, one of the largest public universities in the U.S. — and Montana  which had the second-highest youth vote increase of any state in 2018. Just as crucially, college students will decide the fate of state legislatures, which play key roles in creating fair election districts and deciding key issues like reproductive justice, climate change, and gun safety.

The latest coronavirus estimates suggest this crisis will last at least 18 months, and the economic ripples will likely extend well beyond it. The leaders we elect in November? They may not have made the mess, but they’ll certainly be the ones cleaning it up. If politicians step up right now to help students who are homeless, hungry, dropping classes, or being pushed out of college entirely, they stand a chance of keeping their jobs.

If not, college students will elect new leaders who are ready to rise to the challenge — and maybe even run for those offices themselves.

Max is the Co-founder and CEO of Rise, Inc. a student-led nonprofit advocating for free college and mobilizing student voters nationwide.