Three members of student government wearing masks help a student register to vote on the Nebraska Union plaza.
Members of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student government help a student register to vote on National Voter Registration Day, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, with socially distanced QR codes on the ground. Student political engagement on campus has had to adjust to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parker Zach is used to facing obstacles in the political arena.

The 19-year-old sophomore computer science and mathematics double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln currently serves as president of the UNL Young Democrats. Growing up in rural Stanton, Nebraska, Zach was often a part of the political minority in his community.

In 2017, his home county considered approving a wind farm development. Zach was one of the only vocal proponents in the controversial debate. In the end, Zach lost the fight when Stanton County commissioners voted against the proposal.

This year, there is a new obstacle: COVID-19. Zach and other leaders of political student organizations at UNL have had to adapt traditional political engagement strategies to navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The traditional campaign scenes of handshakes, photos and parades have largely been replaced by face masks, Zoom rallies and phone banking. UNL student leaders have done what they can to connect with each other and potential voters in this abnormal political cycle.

Andre Garivay is the president of UNL’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, the collegiate wing of Democratic Socialists of America. According to Garivay, the pandemic has not prevented his organization, which was started on campus just a month before the March shut-down, from advocating on several issues.

“We really want to focus on calling people, sending texts [and] working with the campaign itself,” he said.

Garivay said his organization is also tapping into its members’ networks to replace traditional in-person campaign strategies.

“Everybody who is in our organization has a platform, whether it be their group of friends, whether it be some sort of social media presence,” he said. “All of these things can combine to really bring a lot of awareness to things, especially when it comes to down-ballot initiatives.”

Young Democratic Socialists of America is not the only political organization on campus that is focusing on texting and calling. According to Zach, UNL Young Democrats is also employing those strategies, as well as writing postcards to potential voters.

“You don’t really get that same personalized feeling when you’re just text banking or you’re phone banking,” he said.

Other political organizations unaffiliated with specific political parties have also had to adapt how they engage with students this fall. Turning Point USA, known on campus for its tabling events,  is still engaging with students every Monday, according to its president, William Beck, a junior political science major from Mound, Minnesota. Turning Point USA has taken several precautions including sanitizing buttons, wearing masks and having only one person at its booth at a time.

Beck noted that in his home state, the Republican and Democrat political responses to campaigning in a pandemic have been different. He said Republicans continue to do door knocking, whereas Democrats do not.

Zach worries that similar variance in Nebraska may have an effect on local campaigns.

“I don’t know if it is going to be an equal disadvantage on both sides,” he said.

These student organizations are largely meeting over Zoom this year. Turning Point USA has 10 members meet in person with the rest Zooming in, while Young Democrats and Young Democratic Socialists of America meet entirely over Zoom. Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization on campus, is also primarily meeting over Zoom, according to Austin Gaines, the group’s president.

“We were able to secure three in-person meetings over the course of the semester,” the junior political science and communication studies double major said. “But all of our other weekly meetings are held on Zoom.”

Zach said meeting over Zoom has provided several opportunities, such as having collaborative meetings with other chapters across the state where candidates can speak to large groups at a single time. Zoom comes with its challenges as well, though.

“If you’re having multiple conversations going on at the same time, it’s just screaming through Zoom,” he said.

Even though political engagement in 2020 looks different than usual, Zach said it can still be an enjoyable experience.

“We are possibly changing enough peoples’ minds so that this election swings for our candidate, which can be really fulfilling for us,” he said, “even if it’s not necessarily in person, like how we would love it to be.”

I am a senior political science and journalism double major from Beloit, Kansas. I am passionate about educational access, and I enjoy covering the education sector. After completing my undergraduate degrees, I plan on attending law school. Find me on Twitter @JaredPaulLong.