Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have upended life as we know it. On top of this, we must address systemic racism across the board—in policing, in incarceration, in health, and in the economy. In the US, all of this also takes place amid a divisive presidential election and the 2020 census—two critical democratic processes that overlap only once every 20 years.

For many of today’s youth, this is their first time filling out a census form as adults and their first time voting in a presidential election—and things are not going smoothly.

Problems with the primary election system have been at the forefront of national conversation, even before COVID. But in light of the pandemic, in-person voting in Wisconsin and Florida made casting a ballot a literal life-or-death decision, while the state of New York cancelled their presidential primary altogether, although it has since been reinstated following a federal lawsuit filed by former candidate Andrew Yang. The census, which traditionally relies on extensive field work, has had to completely reimagine enumeration.

All of this has been set to the backdrop of a deeply divided America. The CARES Act underscores many of the existing inequalities of our country: stimulus checks for the poorest and unbanked members of society are delayed, young people and immigrants are shut out of benefits, and corporations and wealthy institutions have received “small business” relief funds. And across the country, it’s hard to ignore the racism that undergirds so much of American practice, including the fact that Black people are dying from the pandemic at disproportionate rates, as well as the racism laid bare in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others.

At the heart of all of these issues lies one fundamental question: Who counts in America? 

Centering Young People

The 2020 election and census present a unique challenge for young Americans, both as participants and as drivers. Youth voter turnout is a common linchpin in electoral strategies, and funders spend millions to encourage youth voting as part of get-out-the-vote efforts during election years. US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) practically hinged his entire presidential campaign on the youth vote. Unsurprisingly, his loss to Vice President Joe Biden has been blamed on young people failing to turn out. It’s a familiar refrain: young people don’t vote because they don’t care. The funding, therefore, often goes toward efforts to push young people to the polls, rather than into breaking down structural barriers that prevent their participation. Rarely do pundits and analysts contextualize voting patterns with the fact that our system is set up to make participation by young people hard.

Similarly, although many young people cannot actually respond to the census themselves, organizers often look to youth to help boost census participation. As explained to Teen Vogue by Stephen Galloway of Fair Count, high school students can “be advocates within their own homes for completing the census. Students could explain to their families what’s at stake if there is an undercount in their community. They could also help dispel misinformation about the process.”

The census can also be a powerful tool for youth civic engagement. Diana Limongi, a census project manager at Global Kids, explains that working on the census gives students a way to see how democratic processes affect their daily lives. It “takes the macro to the very real and tangible micro level. The census impacts things that affect us every day, like the potholes in our streets and our overcrowded and underfunded schools. The pandemic has really highlighted that we need to count everyone so that the next time we have a public health crisis, we will be better prepared.”

The pandemic is also impacting the count of young people themselves. Census Bureau rules dictate that people should be counted at their “usual” residence—but in the age of COVID-19, few things are usual. As the Pew Research Center reports, “Americans who relocate because of the coronavirus outbreak include millions of college students sent away from their dorms (or from study abroad), young adults working remotely who returned to their parents’ homes and people who fled urban areas for rural communities.” In light of all that, how can we expect an accurate count this year?

Safeguarding the 2020 election and census requires reckoning with the many ways in which America’s democratic systems are broken. As the manifold challenges of COVID-19 force us to rethink the entire structure of our economy and society, we must also reimagine our democratic processes. Youth can and should play a critical role in that. Below, we outline key reforms that we should engage young people in to help mitigate a disastrous year for democracy. 

A New Plan for the Census

Threats to the census started long before the current pandemic, with fights over adding a citizenship status to the questionnaire, a thinly veiled ploy to discourage noncitizens from responding. Undercounting communities has significant consequences; the census is the foundation for many aspects of our democracy like determining congressional seats and representation in state legislatures. It also determines how federal money is distributed. Wisdom Cole, the NAACP Youth and College Division’s National Organizing Manager, estimates that in the 2010 census over 800,000 Black people were not counted.

As the pandemic hit, the Census Bureau was forced to rethink its ground game strategy. Ivan Cazarin, a senior at the University of Illinois Chicago, was supposed to graduate this spring and start a position doing census field work. But the Census Bureau rescheduled a timeline twice already; the last he heard was that his onboarding process was suspended until further notice. As of this writing, he is still “selected,” but there have been no updates about what that means or when his position might begin.

In past iterations of the census, the field team has played a critical role. COVID-19 has shown there are legitimate dangers to proceeding like normal; at least one US Census Bureau employee tested positive for COVID-19 before the decision to halt field work. But to combat both the dangers of the pandemic and an unrepresentative census, census workers and volunteers have had to switch gears quickly.

“In-person trainings became online webinars, community gatherings shifted to phone and text banking, staff and community meetings moved to Zoom,” Rebecca DeHart, CEO of Fair Count, told us. But, DeHart continued, “These shifts don’t come without a cost. Too many people we need to communicate with do not have regular access to the Internet, and even if they do, they may not be accustomed to participating with social media in these ways.”

To address this gap, Fair Count has provided 20,000 flyers about participating in the census to Atlanta Public Schools for inclusion in their weekly grocery delivery to families with students on free- and reduced-price lunch. De Hart adds, “We are constantly looking for ways to join existing efforts bringing the community together to incorporate a civic participation lens.”

Cole said the NAACP’s Youth & College Division made similar shifts. “The NAACP has shifted our get out the count efforts to identifying the hard to count communities using GIS mapping technology and employing efforts such as information drops, community posting, phone banking, and digital messaging. These methods allow youth and college members to participate in campaign efforts as well as maintain safety during the pandemic.”

Rethinking Voter Registration

The voting process starts with registration. Seems basic, and yet 21.4 percent of eligible citizens were not registered to vote in 2014. Needless to say, increasing registration rates would increase participation overall: voting participation in the US is high among registered voters at 86.8 percent, but the rate drops to 55.7 percent when looking at the total voting age population, putting us behind countries like Slovakia and Estonia. Fortunately, improving registration rates does not require radical changes to our current processes, but merely expansion of existing ones:

Online Voter Registration

The pandemic has created a new crisis for voter registration—with states in lockdown, people find it difficult to register. This is especially true for the nine states that prohibit online voter registration: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Maine.

NAACP’s Youth and College Division recognized the threat to democracy that now exists and have already begun organizing for change. “The next generation of new Black voters should not have to choose between their safety and their right to register to vote,” said Cole. “There must be a system update to our political process that ensures that young people will be able to register online.”

The Texas NAACP Youth & College State Conference, in particular, has been focused on modernizing youth voting rights in this way. Similarly, a new report from Demos identifies policy shifts that would make online voter registration accessible, including a measure to make sure that people who don’t have drivers licenses or other DMV records can participate.

Same-Day Voter Registration

As of now, 21 states allow for same-day registration (SDR)—voters can show up to the polls, register, and vote all at once. Many organizations supported SDR before COVID-19, and, with the pandemic, organizations like Demos and the Brennan Center for Justice are doubling down on their advocacy.

The Brennan Center notes that reforms like SDR, and other measures to make registration deadlines flexible, help prepare and anticipate challenges posed by government office shutdowns, issues with online access, and other possible voter registration system breakdowns. 

Automatic Voter Registration

There is no good reason to require people to register to vote before election day. More than 60 percent of adult citizens have never been asked to register, and automatic voter registration would have massive implications for young voters in particular.

As Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times notes, it is not that young people are apathetic: “The issue isn’t interest, it’s structure. It is difficult to get anyone to do anything for the first time, and that’s especially true for voting, which isn’t an easy process in the United States. Worse, many states are making it harder, with specific efforts to keep young people, and students in particular, away from the polls.”

Online voter registration and same day voter registration are incredibly important tools in states where we are still required to register; universal automatic voter registration would ensure that all citizens could vote in November and beyond without needing to register. 

Secure Nationwide Voting by Mail

Getting people to the polls is hard—mentally, logistically, and financially. It would be far easier—and more equitable—for people to be able to vote by mail, without the burden of having to find transportation or take time off from work. The precedent exists: five states have all-mail elections already, and 24.8 million people voted by mail-in absentee ballot in the 2016 general election.

Olivia Brady, a youth coordinator at the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the Roosevelt Network’s democratic access policy coordinator, says that young people who know about voting by mail are very supportive—although she cautions that many young people don’t know it’s an option. “When I do workshops, most of the high schoolers often haven’t even heard of an absentee ballot before,” she said.

Eliminating the need to vote in person is particularly relevant now, when casting a ballot can have direct life and death consequencesespecially for people of color. There is a growing conservative narrative that if Americans shop for groceries during the pandemic, surely they can cast a ballot. But there’s no national replacement for grocery shopping (although wait times for grocery delivery indicate people might want one), while there is a replacement for everyone rushing physically to the polls on the same day.

As one example, Ohio quickly transitioned its primary voting system almost entirely to mail-in ballots as the pandemic took hold, in what could serve as a pilot for the national election in November. The Washington Post reports nearly two million Ohioans requested mail-in ballots and about 1.5 million cast those ballots—a greater than 400 percent increase over absentee voting in the 2016 primary and basically on par with the total number of votes cast in the 2018 primary elections.

What Could Be a Devastating Blow to It All

But all of these reforms could be rendered meaningless if we allow the United States Postal Service (USPS) to crumble. USPS is one of the most popular government agencies, and is an example of how undermining public institutions can devastate democracy. President Trump recently appointed a postmaster general known for his dislike of the institution. Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post notes that US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that any postal relief funds in a stimulus bill “would amount to a poison pill.”

With the USPS set to run out of funds by September, it may have to restrict services or prioritize some services over others. What if it cuts delivery of mail-in-ballots or census forms to or from otherwise underserved communities?

While many young people famously eschew the hard copy for the digital, educating and mobilizing young people about the importance of the USPS as a public, equitable institution is key to its survival.

Our Democracy Is at Stake

We are not wide-eyed idealists. As we know all too well, US democracy has long been highly imperfect and excluded many. That, however, does not change that fact that existing US democratic institutions, faulty as they are, face significant danger.

To secure the 2020 election and the census, we must mobilize today’s youth. Young people are among those with the most to lose if we fail. They are also among those who have the most to gain if we succeed. As a society, we must do more than just leverage young people as voters, or as census volunteers. We have seen youth be hugely effective mobilizers. Youth can also be—must be—policy advocates and policymakers. America’s youth can help lead the fight to dismantle the structural barriers that hold them–and us—back from realizing our power as individuals and members of our society. And philanthropy must invest in youth accordingly.

As we rebuild from the pandemic, we must imagine and drive the kinds of changes we need. Without our youth helping lead the way, it is highly unlikely we will get there.