Student campaign volunteers overcome COVID-19 obstacles

A number of students spent summer break volunteering for candidates, developing new definitions of politics

A year ago, Raven Padilla passively watched the news. Just out of high school, he'd only recently started getting accustomed to new courses, a new environment, club meetings and weekend trips out of Tempe. Now, he's neck-deep in phone banking events and researching for a board of supervisors candidate he thinks will set the community up for success. 

"It's like night and day," said Padilla, a sophomore studying urban planning, on the difference between his life before politics versus after. "Once you find out about it (politics), you can't get out."

He had no interest in politics upon entering college with a number of distractions. It was a friend of a friend who knew Jevin Hodge, a candidate for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and introduced Padilla to him.

Padilla said he had no idea Hodge was "a really seemingly successful person who had a passion for what he was doing." It was Hodge's demeanor that made Padilla want to look into politics more and get involved. 

For the past several months, Padilla has adjusted to campaigning with Hodge and the obstacles of COVID-19 — instead of canvassing in person, he's phone banking from home. His days also consist of him looking into issues potential constituents want to see resolved and reading news stories about other candidates in the race.

Students volunteering with NextGen America's Arizona office are doing the same thing. Jacob Martinez, a sophomore studying political science, is working to educate young people on the candidates in the running and remind Arizonans about deadlines:

  • Sept. 19: Military and overseas ballots mailed
  • Oct. 5: Voter registration deadline
  • Oct. 7: In-person voting available
  • Oct. 23: Last day to request a ballot in the mail
  • Oct. 24: Weekend voting available
  • Oct. 28: Last day to mail back a ballot
  • Nov. 3: Election Day

Martinez is a former field organizer for March for Our Lives, an organization born from the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, advocating for gun violence prevention reform. He said the shooting was an "eye opener to make sure that we're doing good."

"As an activist and as a young person, we generally want to make sure we have as many options as possible," Martinez said. "Our age makes it easier to get creative and target people where they are with information they can use."

For example, NextGen Arizona began digitally organizing through dating apps just as the semester started by creating profiles for NextGen and interacting with people to reach a goal of helping register 30,000 voters. 

Riley Connor, a business law and political science graduate, has been working to get endorsements for Yassamin Ansari, a candidate for Phoenix City Council. Connor has been volunteering with the campaign since last December and said the transition away from in-person events was difficult but allowed for more possibilities for connecting with students. 

Martinez said the digital strategy — creating content for social media and hosting livestreams and other online events — has gone from the untraditional method to something needing mastery.

Martinez said she uses social media to help others "make sure they're registered to vote" and "make sure they have all their questions answered about Election Day itself," among other things. 

"That's something you've never really seen before," Martinez said. "But as a college activist, it's obviously valuable." 

Young people are leading movements all over the country to get their campuses involved in politics at all levels. TikTok, a video-sharing application, is part of a wider political influence conversation now, but talking about the issues with flashing lights, music and quirky dance moves isn’t completely new. 

Activists said the significance of the internet has created a symbolic space for debate, and while often hostile, they find it to be helpful in trying to get a particular candidate elected.

"It's been really cool to gauge what the audience is looking for and also use data we've collected from community members to see what kind of policies they want to see," Connor said. "We're taking current events into account with everything."

But the work they do isn't always about the candidate. Candidates help policy come to fruition and policy is what matters most to student activists, Martinez said. 

He said politics isn't and shouldn't always be represented by a person and believes it's more about policy and understanding the needs of a particular place. 

"More and more, I think our age group is thinking about what the country will be like four years from now," Martinez said, noting the person is not the first thought, the benefits and advancements are. "Young people are worried about looming debt, health care."

Padilla said the most rewarding aspect of being involved now is seeing other students and young people get behind certain movements and political positions. 

"It's crazy to watch how just one person can motivate a whole city or state — even a country — to look for a change," Padilla said.

Padilla continues to volunteer with Hodge because he believes the candidate is both passionate about the race and the people he would represent, with no ulterior motives.

"Politics is just a way to create change," Connor said. "Decisions are going to be made whether you like it or not, so you might as well try to be involved with those decisions and make your voice heard."

Connor said working in politics in 2020 has opened her eyes to what she thinks is little accountability and attention to local politics from the people whom it affects. 

"Local politics is more where I feel like everybody knows each other," Connor said. "You recognize faces at events and can ask them what's going on."

Reach the reporter at and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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