Editor’s note: As the Nov. 3 election draws near, the Daily Universe is exploring different national and local issues impacting voters in a series of stories.
A group of BYU students gathered one Thursday in September for a discussion about issues they believed would impact the rest of their lives. It occurred, like most meetings mid-pandemic, via Zoom but was nonetheless well attended, at least for an academic club.
Sara Kroger, the co-president of the BYU College Democrats, opened the meeting by playing popular music while the attendees digitally filed in. Kroger mentioned that her co-president, Abby Ryan, was self-isolating due to exposure to the COVID-19 virus, and could therefore not attend the meeting.
Kroger was followed by the introduction of several other masked students who had gathered in the same room and stood in front of a green screen. They announced their names, positions, and the issues they are passionate about, which included LGBTQ rights and environmental policy.
After the introductions, students listened to presentations from a few local campaigns, including Jenna Rakuita who is running to represent Provo in the Utah Legislature. They also got information on the BYU Students For Biden initiative. The Zoom participants then divided into break-out rooms for a get to know you activity.
As the 2020 election approaches, college Democrats nationwide are in a unique position.
According to a study conducted earlier this year, a large number of college students were uninterested in voting during the 2020 election season. However, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic and the killing of George Floyd, a different study conducted by the Knight Foundation shows divergent results.
A sample of 4,000 college students nationwide suggested that 7 in 10 are “absolutely certain” that they will vote in the upcoming election. Of those, 81% who identify as Democrats say they will definitely vote. A majority of all students plan to vote for Joe Biden, though overall enthusiasm for both candidates is reported to be low.
The BYU Democrats, however, exist in a state that consistently votes red. BYU also leans to the right on the spectrum of politics, if not in physical majority then certainly in reputation, at a time when political division is at an all-time high.
Gracia Lee, the club officer in charge of social media, feels the division. She said she often gets angry messages via the club’s Instagram page. Lee said most of these messages don’t come from current BYU students.
Lee, a graphic design major, has been a member of the College Democrats since her freshman year. She identifies as a woman of color, though she notes that she is often mistaken for a white person. Lee said that’s one of her reasons for being active in the club.
“I’ve been surprised to see such a large ‘Students for Trump’ movement, to be honest,” Lee said. She also referenced videos and pictures of gatherings on behalf of Students for Trump group meetings showing students who are not wearing masks and who do not appear to be social distancing.
Still, the BYU Democrats is the largest academic club on campus, according to Lee and the other club officers. They said they have a harmonious relationship with the College Republicans, whom they work with to plan events like debates.
Lee said some students view the club as a sort of haven for students who may belong to marginalized communities, citing LGBTQ students as an example. She also noted that the club is not for the far left and that quite a lot of the leaders are moderate Democrats. The main goal of the club, according to Lee, is to ensure that everyone can get involved in politics.
Luke Romney, a freshman from Salt Lake City, was invited to become a club officer shortly after creating the Instagram account BYUQ24, which he said is dedicated to fostering a community between queer students and allies in the BYU class of 2024.
Romney’s responsibilities deal entirely with voter registration. He said this will be a difficult task at BYU because a large number of students are not from Utah. This means requesting an absentee ballot, which can take a number of steps. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even students from Utah plan to vote by mail. Romney said this can even include printing out various documents. He plans to do his best to help students navigate the registration process.
Romney plans to vote for Biden.
“It’s essentially a matter of policy. In my personal opinion, that’s why you should vote for people. The things that he’s promised to push and prioritize in his presidency are things that are important to me.”
As a Democrat and member of the LGBTQ+ community, Romney said he does feel some political contention on campus. He thinks it’s unfortunate that issues like wearing masks have become politicized. Still, Romney noted that his overall experience at BYU has been positive.
As far as cooperation with the Republican Party goes, Trenton Borders is perhaps the most involved. Borders works closely with the BYU College Republicans to plan events like debates.
Borders is a finance major who has been interested in Democratic politics for a while, noting climate change as a particularly significant issue. He believes that there is some on-campus tension between the two ideals but said he does not feel this persistently.
Borders said most of the conflict comes from unsanctioned groups, like the aforementioned Students For Trump movement and other initiatives that feel BYU as a whole is becoming too liberal.
Like the other members of the BYU Democrats, Borders stressed the need for political involvement rather than partisan conflict.
“Having a moral leader in the White House, making good policy decisions, leading less-developed nations to climate and human rights policies, I think those are real moral choices that we can make as a country and I think that we have an obligation to do so as one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” Borders said.
The BYU Democrats focus on political involvement in the general sense, and other students take a more direct approach.
Broderik Craig is one such student. He attended a Utah for Biden training meeting via Zoom and organized the BYU Students for Biden chapter.
BYU Students for Biden is not directly affiliated with the BYU Democrats, though the BYU Democrats do promote events organized by the initiative and gave time to a representative during their opening social.
Craig said all of the campaign’s events have been or will be virtual, due to the pandemic and the fact that the club is not directly affiliated with BYU. The events include debate watch parties and policy discussions.
BYU Students For Biden is, according to Craig, about becoming an informed voter. The students behind the initiative said it’s important to educate fellow students, especially to let them know that they have the power to choose a candidate who represents them.
“Trump does not represent our values, especially as Latter-day Saints. When it comes to his policies, to his character, he’s just not what we need as president, and to represent us at BYU,” Craig said.
Among those who agree with Craig is Aurora Golden-Appleton, who is also involved with the BYU Students for Biden campaign after spending a summer working with the state senate.
“I believe Joe Biden is a principled candidate who is in the single best position to maintain and improve American democracy for all at this current precipice, and that’s why I’m supporting him,” said Golden-Appleton.
Golden-Appleton also said voter education and information is important. Students who strongly support Trump’s campaign are “definitely in the minority,” from her perspective. The club chooses to focus on undecided voters and existing Biden supporters to ensure that resources and information are available when needed.
BYU professor Dr. Jacob Rugh recently reported projections based on a small survey that Biden will win many of the voting precincts surrounding BYU. If so, it would be the first time a Democratic candidate has won in two generations.