Election officials are predicting record voting turnout for the 2020 presidential election as young voters surge to the polls.
Utah is also on track to report record-breaking numbers as well, with 1,152,383 ballots processed by Tuesday morning — which surpasses the total number of ballots processed for the 2016 general election.
By the time in-person polls opened Tuesday, over a million Utahns cast their ballots — which is more than 87% of the total vote in 2016. As a result, election officials are expecting record turnout as votes are tabulated over the coming days.
The massive increase in voter enthusiasm may be caused by the increasing political divides across the major U.S. parties. Amid the pandemic, a shift in Supreme Court ideological leaning and social unrest across the country — the 2020 elections are set to be unlike any other.
Record voter turnout
College students have a notoriously low voter turnout in most elections. But students at Westminster College said they are passionate about the issues facing Americans in 2020.
“I’d say actionable coronavirus policies are most important to me,” said Olivia Gregg, a sophomore public health major.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in January, the issue has become increasingly important for voters. More than half of Americans (56%) say they disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to a September NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.
The coronavirus has become a top issue for Democrats, with 18% saying it’s the most important issue. On the other hand, only 5% of Republicans say the same — with many defending the president’s response.
The New York Times reported 231,990 total deaths and more than 9.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Tuesday. In Utah, 117,751 total cases and 620 COVID-related deaths were recorded as of Tuesday.
College students share their top priorities
Jake Wallace, a senior environmental studies major, said healthcare policies concerning pre-existing conditions are among his top priorities.
Affordable healthcare has been a hot topic in U.S. politics since the Affordable Care Act — often called Obamacare — was signed into law in 2010. The policy provided explicit protections for those with pre-existing conditions.
Although Democrats tend to split on the idea of Medicare for All, the party widely agrees on a larger role for government within healthcare.
Republicans, however, want to see less government involvement and more free-market rule. Several GOP members have advocated for removing required protections for pre-existing conditions.
Environmental protections have also become an increasingly important issue among college students. Davis Kahler, a senior aviation major, said climate change was by far the most important.
“Nothing else matters if the Earth is gone,” Kahler said.
Debates over climate change and the required solutions have drastically varied over this past election season: Joe Biden said he considers climate change a direct threat to America while President Trump continues to question and deny climate change.
Biden has presented a comprehensive plan to reduce the impacts of climate change, which includes rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and creating jobs in the green sector. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has eliminated or weakened dozens of environmental regulations in the past four years, according to NPR.
Social media’s involvement in election
More Americans are getting their news from social media than ever — especially young voters. Roughly 20% of U.S. adults report getting their news from social media “often,” according to the Pew Research Center.
This poses some concerns among experts who say a majority of misinformation originates from online news sources. In fact, a study from MIT reported false news stories are likely to spread about six times faster than real news across social media platforms.
In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of external and internal influences encouraging election misinformation on social media.
“We’re trying to make sure Americans know [that] to get information about where, when and how you vote, you need to go to your local election official’s website,” Wray said. “Don’t take it from social media.”
In response, several social media sites began cracking down on misinformation ahead of the 2020 election.
For example, Twitter temporarily disabled or modified several of its features in the beginning of October to make it more difficult for users to mindlessly retweet false information.
Facebook announced it would not accept new political ads in the week before the election, with Google also blocking election ads after the polls closed.
In an email to advertisers, Google said it will not run ads referencing any candidates or outcomes given that “an unprecedented amount of votes will be counted after Election Day this year.”
Jerica Bird, a senior fine arts major, said she noticed an increase of political ads in her social media feeds encouraging her to register to vote.
“It started a month ago,” she said in the beginning of October. “It’s at the top of my Instagram feed every time I go on now. I’ve noticed a lot more ads on YouTube that are really pointed towards the presidential campaign and the local campaigns in Utah.”
Other Westminster students have noticed political shifts in their timelines as well. Josii Johnson, a sophomore photography major, said Instagram was the most obvious example.
“Now that I think about it, political ads are on literally everything,” Johnson said.
Social media fuels activism among young voters
With the rise of social media, many young voters have turned to these different sites to engage in political activism.
Many reported they view it as a crucial component of civic engagement, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts University’s CIRCLE.
This has elicited mixed reactions. While several young voters used their social media accounts to get involved, others said they felt overwhelmed by the number of political posts on their feeds.
About 55% of adult social media users in the U.S. reported feeling “worn out” by the political discourse online, according to the Pew Research Center.
“My social media is constantly bombarded by politics,” said Saydi Anderson, a political science and Latin American studies double major. “I would estimate that one in three Instagram stories I see each day has something to do with the upcoming election.”
Forum reporter Kate McMaster contributed to this report.