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With three weeks to go until the election, a small group of volunteers set out to encourage North Hennepin Community College students to vote.

They arrived at the parking lot of the north metro campus on Monday with all the necessary provisions. Folding tables were covered with bright blue banners, stacks of blank voter registration forms and piles of pens. Cherry red "I'm a voter" buttons and platters of free sandwiches awaited the new registrants.

And, in a creative new twist, a pair of registered nurses were on hand to offer flu shots to anyone who stopped by.

The voter drive, one of more than a dozen similar events happening across the state this month, illustrated the unique challenges organizers and student activists are facing in reaching peers ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

An early rush of students produced no new sign-ups. As the hours passed, the numbers dwindled. Gusts of wind sent the tents and voter registration forms flying. With most courses moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic, the parking lot remained nearly empty.

Although Minnesota leads the nation in young voter turnout, young people still vote at lower rates than older residents. Research shows that young people are more likely to vote when asked to do so, especially as the election nears. The voting rate for Americans 18-24 who were contacted before and during October was 78% in 2018, one postelection poll from Tufts University found. That compared with a 45% rate for those who were not contacted at all. And despite the generation's digital-native reputation, the research suggests in-person interaction remains one of the most effective modes of reaching young voters.

Using those findings, organizers have stepped up efforts to bring resources and information to student voters in recent years. The push has been especially pronounced at the state's community college and technical schools, where students still tend to vote at lower rates than those enrolled at four-year institutions. LeadMN, an association representing 180,000 two-year college students statewide, has set its sights on closing that gap.

But this year, quads and classrooms sit largely empty due to the coronavirus pandemic. The shift to online learning and the loss of normal campus life have gutted opportunities for regular peer-to-peer contact, especially on community college campuses mostly populated by commuter students.

"It's kind of thrown everything up in the air in terms of expectations and plans," said Michael Dean, executive director of LeadMN. "We're trying to do what we can at this point. It's a very challenging environment."

Undeterred, student organizers and activists across the state are getting creative. The series of flu shot events, which produced dozens of new registrations across the state, were envisioned as a way to fill multiple needs for the student population.

"We're trying to connect different services folks need," said Fatu Magassouba, LeadMN director of outreach. "From what we're hearing, [COVID-19] is going to be really bad. This is an opportunity for us not only to register students but to get them ready."

Organizers are also hosting therapy dog play sessions, virtual text-banking parties and online trivia nights to share election information.

Waiting for students to arrive at the flu shot tent, Christian Koch, a student now working with LeadMN, fired up a laptop in the passenger seat of a colleague's car for a "pop in" visit to a Zoom class. For Koch, it was a big shift from 2018, when he personally registered 500 peers in person on campus at Anoka Tech.

"We're trying to cover the commuters and the online base as well," said Koch, now pursuing a master's in educational leadership. "When I'm talking to students I can build that connection and I can answer on the spot any issues they might have."

There are signs the full-court press is working. All told, LeadMN has registered more than 3,000 students to vote this year. The puppy event alone resulted in about 150 sign-ups. Statewide, registration among students 18-24 is up 12% over 2016.

The hybrid strategy of reaching students in person and online deployed by LeadMN and other Minnesota organizations is growing in popularity this year as groups across the country adjust to the realities of voter outreach during a pandemic. Organizers say the messenger may be more important than the communication method for young voters trying to navigate the voting process.

"There's an information environment where it's hard to know what's going on," said Philip Hensley, a Pennsylvania-based organizer with the national Campus Vote Project. "But when they're hearing from a fellow student doing a brief presentation on the top of their Zoom class or getting a text from a source they trust, that is, we've found, one of the most effective ways to accurately inform people about why they should vote."

The university itself can also be an influential source for new student voters. While state law requires that colleges provide voter registration information to students, LeadMN has partnered with administrations to ensure the information is front-and-center on popular school websites and platforms.

As outreach barriers to student voters remain, organizers say many students have questions about eligibility and the process for requesting ballots, especially in a pandemic. Those who move frequently might need to update their registration each election. Efforts to approve pop-up early voting sites on campuses have stalled in the state Legislature.

Aware of those challenges, volunteers staffing the flu shot tent took extra steps to be sure students had the necessary information. A number of the eligible voters who did show up had already registered. One had even submitted her ballot early. Tyler Davis, a 22-year-old engineering student at North Hennepin, said he planned to vote by mail from his Minnetonka home. With their eye on the prize, volunteers encouraged him to ask two people he knows to cast a ballot.

"I always let people know to go on the website," Koch said. "Bring awareness to all the other people in their class."

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049