“There’s Too Much at Stake”: Meet the Yalies Working to Save Democracy This Fall
Geographically adrift, but politically anchored — Yale students are taking time off (or balancing classes) to work on campaigns and voter engagement initiatives this fall.
From his home in East Lyme, Connecticut — a state that has been faithfully blue for three decades — Conrad French ’23 has been making a lot of calls. For upwards of 10 hours each day, he’s trying to sway voters in Gaston County, North Carolina, a solidly Republican stronghold — known for its cotton mills and bog turtles — where Trump held a rally just last week. Nick Jacobson ’24, a field intern for Eugene DePasquale’s campaign in Pennsylvania’s hotly contested 10th Congressional District, shares his screen with scores of volunteers. Some of the faces he sees in gallery view are offering up their lunch hours to send texts to voters, and others are giving entire days.
Crossing a few state lines, Candice Mulinda ’24 is working on Amy McGrath’s campaign in Kentucky, while Nick McGowan ’24 also relocated this fall to reel in votes for Democratic Party candidates in three pivotal counties in north-central Iowa.
All told, these students, who were considering taking a leave of absence even before the pandemic hit, have called and texted thousands upon thousands of voters, developed policy and communications strategies and hosted countless virtual training sessions and Zoom socials for volunteers.
The News reached out to students active in a range of political groups on campus, but were not able to identify any undergraduates working on Republican campaigns this fall.
When Jacobson articulates why he’s willing to trade Zoom classes for Zoom training sessions, his explanation comes without pause. Politics seem to run in his family’s bloodlines — he said that his uncle also took time off college to work on a presidential campaign — but observing the opioid crisis and racial violence play out in his hometown over the past four years made the decision all the more intuitive.
“I have been increasingly disturbed by the failure of politicians in Washington to meet the needs of people in central Pennsylvania,” Jacobson said. “It seemed right to take time to do something that is on my mind every day.”
Many of his peers — geographically adrift, but politically anchored — spoke to the country’s existential unease (on the subject of Tuesday, grade school dicta against hyperboles and absolutes have been cast out the window). Some, like Jacobson, have been canvassing since middle school. Others, like Timothy Han ’23, who is working for Biden’s presidential campaign and Jennifer Wexton’s congressional campaign in northern Virginia, have dived headfirst into this campaign cycle without having any intention of entering the political arena in the long term.
French, who is working for several campaigns through the North Carolina Democratic Party, didn’t mince words.
“There’s no question that this is the most important election of my lifetime. What this country looks like — the way it’s governed — is at stake,” he said.
Yale College Democrats President Molly Shapiro ’21 is taking classes but still clocking countless hours to ramp up voter turnout on Yale’s campus and support Dems members scattered across battleground states. She’s buoyed by a strong sense that this semester is not just “academic,” so she’s willing to phonebank and register voters even if it means finishing an assignment later.
Emmett Shell ’23, like Mulinda, is working as a field organizer for McGrath, the Democratic challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He chose the Kentucky race not only because of his enthusiasm for McGrath’s track record and platform but also out of an intense dislike of the incumbent.
“Mitch McConnell is truly an evil person who has used a tremendous amount of power to do a lot of bad in his country and in the world with detrimental consequences for millions of people,” Shell said.
McConnell’s congressional office did not respond to a request for comment.
ON THE TRAIL, ONLINE
Their jobs follow no set routine, but they do share a common language: Many of these field organizers have split their time between recruiting and training volunteers and directly engaging voters via text or phone calls. Others fill more specialized positions, like tracking media coverage of their respective candidates, developing political strategy or supporting fundraising efforts.
Jacobson described two related goals in the field of campaign work: connecting with voters — which, in most years, neighborhood-to-neighborhood door-knocking is a popular and effective strategy — and drawing in volunteers, which creates a multiplicative effect that helps campaigns size their footprints up many times over. Their task over the past few months, in other words, has been to cover as much surface area as possible, without the physical maps and canvassing routes to get them there.
That very little of their field organizing is in the field at all is but one of the pandemic’s many ironies. Sadi Ghimire ’23, who is campaigning for Betsy Dirksen Londrigan in Illinois’ 13th Congressional District, said that “not having as much face-to-face contact with voters is really hard.” In rural districts, like those Mulinda is helping oversee in Kentucky, remote voter outreach presents additional challenges, like lack of in-home internet, television or phone service.
It can also be tough for volunteers to muster the same levels of enthusiasm for the campaign, when the usual rewards of their work — from in-person socials to free food — are difficult to replicate over Zoom. Many Democratic Party campaigns are operating totally without an in-person component, which means that childhood bedrooms are doing double duty as campaign offices.
And there’s still a persistent feeling, for Han, that some of Wexton and Biden’s Republican Party opponents — who are running traditional in-person campaigns, COVID be damned — might benefit from an unfair competitive advantage.
“It’s so much easier to knock on people’s doors,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean digital campaigning hasn’t presented its own opportunities — ones unlikely to be let go by campaign professionals even when the pandemic subsides. Several students interviewed by the News referred to “relational organizing”: a buzzy term in campaign strategy that refers to harnessing existing social networks among voters and volunteers to cement support.
Moving online has also allowed these students to work for campaigns coast-to-coast no matter where they are currently based, though French pointed out that remote work may produce mixed effects.
“People who are not super tech-savvy would be door-knocking in a normal year — but at the same time, people who can’t go door to door have a great opportunity to be involved,” French said.
Though hours are long, the work frequently inglorious and Zoom fatigue real, students have still found value in building rapport with volunteers and voters.
“I’ve been inspired,” Han said, “by how much ordinary working people are willing to sacrifice every day.”
French added that he’s similarly inspired by one of his colleagues, who lost her job as a waitress amid the pandemic and is still “single-handedly turning out votes in Gaston County.”
On Shell’s volunteer team, an octogenarian is dialing in five times a week. And when another elderly voter mentioned — on the day of Kentucky’s voter registration deadline — that he was not yet registered, Mulinda spent half an hour on the phone guiding him through the online registration process, which she described as “so fulfilling.”
For these students, there’s a chance that, come tomorrow, their phones will stop ringing. There’s also a chance that — should election results be contested — they won’t. For the students who have given up taking classes this semester to work on political campaigns and the others who are balancing both, it’s hard to imagine what would come after the election, and when, even, that might be.
Almost all hedged when asked what anything other than victory would prefigure.
“I don’t want to contemplate loss,” Han said.
“I don’t think losing is an option,” Jacobson echoed. “There’s too much at stake.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Eight months ago today, the United States had 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Former Vice President Joe Biden was not yet the Democratic nominee. We were in the final crunch of midterm exams before recess, thinking about vacation plans, thinking about the Spring Fling lineup, worrying a little, perhaps, about the slow, steady creep of the virus into the country.
Americans these past eight months have borne the collective weight of a devastating pandemic, an equally painful economic recession, racial injustice and an ever-deepening cultural-political chasm. It feels difficult to not be somewhat hardened by 2020, or, at least, changed. The events of this year might have a particularly indelible impact on young people, many of whom are voting for the first time this fall.
“I don’t think it’s possible to go back to the same person you left,” said McGowan. “[Campaign work] shapes you and reminds you of the world beyond Yale.”
In keeping with the unpredictability that’s plagued 2020, little is certain about the coming weeks. But, eventually, at some point in the near or further future, every vote will be counted. Elections will be called. And one by one, whether in February or next August, these Yalies will trickle back to campus, wholly different from the people they were when we left for spring break last March.
Most students the News spoke with said that campaign work hadn’t dramatically changed their academic aspirations, but rather shifted the context in which they’ll study. Matt Youkilis ’24, who took the term off to work on voting engagement initiatives, explained that he’s more likely to consider the practical applications of his coursework in the coming semesters.
“It’ll be harder to be a hermit at Yale and get lost in the books, in philosophy, in ancient history,” he said. “I’m more likely to see how I can apply [my classes] to career paths.”
Some added the caveat that the minutiae of their coursework might seem slightly lower-stakes now.
“I’m not going to change my major,” Mulinda said, “But I know for certain that when I’m sitting and analyzing the capitalization of two words in the Constitution, I will never use this.”
And while many of the students interviewed are studying political science, a handful told the News that they now believe a college degree isn’t necessary for campaign work or political organizing, as evidenced by their colleagues on the trail. Anyone, they said, can volunteer — and they want more Yalies to engage.
Four years ago, a mere 56.7 percent of eligible Yale University students voted, according to Yale Votes publicity captain Olivia Sepe ’24, who cited Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. The group is pushing for 100-percent voter participation in this election, advancing their mission via the dissemination of social media infographics and the Yale Pledge to 100 campaign, which challenges different student groups to reach 100-percent voter registration.
In addition to her work with Yale Votes, Sepe has signed up to be a poll worker this election cycle. She served as a supervisor in Rhode Island’s June presidential preference primaries and as a clerk in the September primaries, earning a promotion to moderator for the general election. Her Election Day shift will start at 6 in the morning and run past 10 p.m. — a long day, to be sure, but a commitment she feels compelled to make, and a role she’s excited to play.
“Being a poll worker in my community is really important to me because I want to make sure our elections are safe and secure and that people feel comfortable voting in person if they choose to this year,” Sepe said. “I knew there was such a strong need for poll workers, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Indeed, the pandemic has precipitated a well-documented need for young people to serve as poll workers. In 2018, 58 percent of poll workers were 61 or older, falling squarely in a category of high risk for the virus — and causing many to sit this election out over safety concerns. Many states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work the polls, despite not being able to vote themselves, and some counties compensate workers for their time.
Sepe said she feels it’s a COVID-safe option for young, healthy people, noting that at her June and September poll sites, everyone wore masks, Plexiglass separated workers from voters and the pens, iPads and voting machines voters used to cast their ballots were frequently sanitized. The same will be true on Tuesday.
Beyond the ballot box, there’s much students can do to lay the groundwork for the change they want to see. Many campaign staffers the News spoke with stressed the importance of phonebanking and textbanking, particularly while traditional canvassing is precluded indefinitely by the pandemic. Mulinda said that she “could never” go through another election cycle without phonebanking.
She advised students who receive texts from volunteers asking them to sign up for phone banking shifts to “just say yes to it.”
“I promise you will not regret it,” she said.
Low rates of youth voter participation is a phenomenon spanning back decades — though turnout appears to be surging this cycle — and has proven a historically challenging issue to combat. But now is not the time to be defeated by cynicism or disillusionment, Jacobson said. Young people can no longer choose to remain apolitical — he believes it was never a choice to begin with.
“The way we treat and interact with each other, how we talk to each other, that’s all politics,” Jacobson said. “Politics is something we live, not something we choose to engage with or not to.”
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