November 2, 2020

GUEST ROOM | ‘I’m Praying that My Vote is Counted’ — Voting Struggles Rob Students of Agency

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Two and a half weeks before the Nov. 3 general election, my sister, Natalie Sullivan Baker ’22, mailed her absentee ballot request 450 miles to Lucas County, Ohio, where she’s registered to vote. By Tuesday, October 27, she was nervous. Her request had still not been logged by the county’s ballot tracking website, so she called the Lucas County Board of Elections to check the status of her ballot. She texted me immediately afterward: “She said the mail is really slow, so I have to drop it off. And I can’t do that, so I don’t think I can vote.”

In an election defined by pandemic chaos, postal service delays and voter suppression efforts, some Cornell students are finding it difficult — and sometimes impossible — to participate in an election that 69 percent of Americans rate as the most important of their lifetime. And when the vote by mail system fails, Cornellians have to make a choice: violate university rules, risking judicial action, or lose their right to the franchise. 

University travel restrictions state that “Cornell students living in the greater Ithaca area are expected to remain in the region until the time when they return to their permanent residence for the remainder of the fall semester.” If a student must travel to a state on New York State’s travel advisory list, such as Ohio, they’re “strongly advised” to remain at home for the remainder of the semester — or else quarantine for two weeks upon returning to Ithaca. Even if it were feasible — amid prelims, papers, and problem sets — for Natalie to drive nearly 14 hours round-trip to Ohio, she’d have to spend roughly half of the rest of the in-person semester in isolation.

Natalie’s experience is shared by thousands of other voters across the battleground state of Ohio. Many delays are tied to a Cleveland mailing company contracted to print and send ballots. Anticipating an overwhelming surge of absentee ballot requests, Lucas County and 15 other counties hired Midwest Direct to manage demand and prevent delays. But the company “overpromised and underdelivered,” preventing tens of thousands of voters in each of the 16 counties from receiving ballots on time. Lucas County is one of the jurisdictions with the highest quantities of delayed ballots, and it was one of just eight counties in the state to back Hillary Clinton. Adding another layer of controversy, Midwest Direct flew a Trump flag above its headquarters until earlier this month, expressing its owners’ support for the presidential candidate who has, in the words of the New York Times, “spent months denigrating the practice of voting by mail.”

But the damage done by the company hasn’t been limited to Ohio.  In neighboring Pennsylvania, another key swing state, it sent nearly 29,000 ballots to the wrong addresses in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh. Similar ballot addressing errors hit close to home in Ithaca.

Kerry Gettler ’22, of Rockland County,  New York, received a ballot only after it went twice to the wrong address. After waiting nearly a month and a half, she called her local board of elections to check on the status of her ballot. The official questioned whether Gettler needed an absentee ballot when she could vote in person, prompting Getter to explain that Cornell’s COVID-19 rules prohibit travel.

The official eventually discovered the ballot had been sent to the wrong place, so Gettler provided her current address, and the board of elections mailed a new ballot — to the North Campus dorm where she lived two years ago. When Gettler called a second time, frustrated by the errors, an official told her to “calm down” because “it wasn’t a big deal anyway,” and she mailed her a third ballot overnight.

Gettler’s frustration lingers. She found the errors and unpleasant interactions with election officials “disheartening,” telling me “that’s the kind of attitude that deters people from voting.”  And her voting challenges marred a democratic experience she had enthusiastically anticipated: “This is my first presidential election, and I’ve been excited for months. I’ve watched every debate.” 

Across the Hudson, bureaucratic malpractice has repeatedly created obstacles to voting. The New York Times recently published a piece describing “decades of nepotism and bungling” at the New York City Elections Board, which governs voting in a city home to 8 percent of Cornell students. The Board, whose officials are appointed almost entirely by Democratic and Republican party bosses, sent many voters absentee ballots only a day before the 2020 primaries, improperly purged nearly 200,000 voters in 2016 and forced voters to endure four hour lines in 2018. Already this general election cycle, a printing company contracted by the Board sent envelopes with incorrect return addresses to absentee voters, and the ballots themselves, with labels stating “absentee military,” have caused confusion among voters. 

Absentee voting issues don’t just affect upstate students. An Erie County, New York, voter from the Class of 2022 still hasn’t received his ballot despite submitting an application in early September.  Last weekend, he’d had enough: “I went home and voted on Sunday in person, because I was afraid I wouldn’t receive my ballot at all.” Although major local news outlets have not reported widespread absentee ballot delays, the county has seen “exceedingly long lines” even after deploying all its voting equipment, according to Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr.

Though this student voter was aware of Cornell’s travel restrictions, they didn’t deter him from voting in person. “I knew they didn’t want us to leave,” he told me. “But there’s a close House race in my district. I couldn’t not vote.” The student chose to remain anonymous, fearing disciplinary action. 

Tight races magnify the stakes of voting challenges, and there are few places where the stakes are higher than in Texas. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are locked in a close battle for the state’s 38 electoral votes. 538 projects a 50.5 percent to 48.6 percent victory for the incumbent president, but it gives the former Vice President a 36 percent chance of carrying the state. The battle for the Texas House of Representatives is also critical. Democrats only need to pick up 9 seats to gain control of the chamber, and they’re targeting 18 Democratic-majority districts they narrowly lost two years ago. Fortune has described Texas as “the crown jewel of the 2021 redistricting process,” and a Democratic House majority would prevent the Republican Party from unilaterally drawing the second-most populous state’s 36 Congressional districts. 

But Lone Star State Cornellians have encountered challenges navigating the state’s absentee voting regulations. Casey Martin ’22, a voter from Bexar County, found the ballot request process frustrating and confusing. In late September, she electronically submitted what she thought was a valid ballot request, not realizing that Texas requires voters to mail in physical application forms. “Panicking,” she printed and mailed her form on Oct. 20, when she learned of the requirement, and she only received her ballot on Oct. 31. 

“A lot of it was me misunderstanding and misreading — taking for granted that it would be easy and simple,” she told me. But the effect of a procedural mistake would be profound: “The feeling that because of a stupid timing error I wouldn’t be able to use the one really tangible tool in my arsenal — that was devastating.”

A “very politically active and involved” person who is a  member of the Cornell Political Union and Epsilon Eta, a professional honors sustainability fraternity, Martin would feel humiliated if her vote isn’t counted. “How can I sit here and tell people to vote and try to talk about how this administration is horrible — and mess up? It was incredibly mortifying to me to think that I wouldn’t be able to submit a ballot.”

Monday morning, she woke up early, before her classes, to mail her ballot with the fastest shipping available. “Now that it’s here, I’m going to do whatever I have to to get it there in what’s hopefully enough time to be counted. It does feel like life or death. I’m praying that my vote is counted.”

Another Texas voter, a member of the Class of 2022 who declined to be named, submitted an absentee ballot application request about seven weeks ago, also thinking he was requesting the ballot itself. He was surprised when he received his application — and not his actual ballot — about a week ago, with the election looming. Hoping he could still  meet the deadline, he completed and mailed his application the next day, but he has still not received his ballot. 

“At this point, there isn’t much I can do.” He told me. Because the state will only count absentee ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day and received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 4th, he feels hopeless:  “There’s no way I’ll get my ballot in time.”

He is acutely aware of the gravity of the 2020 election. “I understand that this decision can affect many people and their rights, and being from Texas I know my vote is extremely important, so missing out is honestly pretty frustrating,” he said.

It’s not just Cornell students who have had trouble voting in the Lone Star State. The Texas Tribune recently profiled two American University students, who roadtripped 30 hours from Washington D.C. to Austin to cast their votes after their ballots never arrived. And according to the Tribune, record breaking numbers of citizens voting by mail have led to significant absentee ballot mailing delays, leading Bexar County County Elections Administrator Jacque Callenen to acknowledge the “tight window” they create. Even more troubling, predominantly-Democratic Harris County, which includes part of Houston, has made national news after Republicans sued to throw out nearly 127,000 votes from drive-through polling sites. The Texas Supreme Court rejected the Republicans’ case on Sunday, and a federal judge denied their challenge today, but their success on appeal would mean the disenfranchisement of 10 percent of the county’s voters.

As Cornellians and Americans across the country strive to make their votes count, Donald Trump looms. He has fought to prevent Americans from voting by mail, spreading entirely baseless claims of voter fraud and claiming that, with higher voter turnout,  “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” He has encouraged voting twice in the same election, which is illegal, and the United States Postal Service experienced “huge” slowdowns after his postmaster general took office.

2020 is the first presidential election — or the first-ever election — for many Cornellians, and it falls at a time when uncertainty and fear pervades daily life. Amid a pandemic that has thrown a wrench into our lives, amid escalating calls for an end to systemic racial injustice and amid an intensifying climate crisis, voting should offer certainty and security; our choices matter. It should feel like one “really tangible tool” to claw back the agency 2020 has taken away and exert some measure of influence over the society that defines our lives. When voting is an arduous, confusing or wearisome process, agency feels further out of reach.

John Sullivan Baker ’20 is a graduate of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and previously worked as an opinion columnist at The Sun. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.