Sipping tea Tuesday night in a Keeton House lounge, Madeline Lei ’23 and her suitemate eyed the polls. The pair refreshed the CBS News election results page on their computers and refreshed it again, trying to stay calm as a sea of red appeared on their screens.
“We’re both pretty stressed right now. We’re constantly refreshing the polls seeing what’s happening,” Lei, who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden, said around 11 p.m. “There hasn’t really been much positive. We’re seeing all these states in red and it’s really disturbing and kind of shocking to see it a tight race.”
This is election night on a COVID-19 campus. Instead of packing into watch parties and eyeing the polls until the morning, Cornellians huddled with housemates around computers and television screens, bracing through push notifications and live news broadcasts in between prelim study sessions and problem sets.
In an election marked by battleground states and a still-undeclared winner, many Cornell students said they felt the weight of the election. But on Tuesday night, few said they had fully processed the trickling results as ballots, too, are still being counted across the country.
Lei said she was tracking the Texas and Florida polls on Tuesday, uneasy that swing states would shape the outcome of the election. But not everyone was watching — Lei said her two other suitemates were plugging away at problem sets on election night, worried about looming deadlines and uncertain that final results would roll in before Wednesday classes.
But Lei, who studies sociology and chemistry, said she couldn’t focus, especially after she called her Illinois board of elections office more than 30 times to secure an absentee ballot. Lei walked through 30-degree temperatures and wind on Monday to submit her delayed ballot to a Buffalo Street drop-off ballot box.
“This is a form of voter suppression. Exhaustion is also voter suppression. Making it this difficult for certain people to vote is very disturbing,” Lei said. “This election feels like this heavy weight on our shoulders. There’s the future of democracy. Why does the plasma membrane matter right now? Why is this important to the future of the U.S.?”
Lei wasn’t the only one struggling to focus. Valeria Gomez ’23 said she jumped between studying for her evolutionary biology prelim — it’s on Thursday — and zooming in on the Texas polls, surrounded by her friends in another Keeton common room.
A Texas native, Gomez said refreshing the Google election results was more frustrating than reassuring. Gomez was watching Texas turn blue, then red, without her vote — after requesting her absentee ballot in August, it never arrived. Early Wednesday morning, the typically red stronghold state and its 38 electoral votes were cast for President Donald Trump.
“My vote mattered in Texas,” Gomez said Tuesday evening, equipped with cookies and cream ice cream for comfort. “I’m really worried about that.”
Gomez added that being surrounded by friends from New York whose mail-in ballot process went smoothly made her feel powerless, as she watched the Texas results trickle in. A first-time voter, she said she is eager for leadership that adequately addresses climate change and ongoing racial justice protests.
After checking her Becker House mailbox each week throughout the semester, her elections office told Gomez her ballot wasn’t in the system.
“It hurts me to hear all of these stories of people having a sticker saying, ‘I voted,’” Gomez said. “It hurts because it’s not exactly my fault. It’s a mess. People will say ‘I voted,’ and I kind of have to stay quiet. Everyone in New York is telling me how important it is to vote, but I can’t do anything.”
One New Yorker is Hannah Fuchs ’23, who said she felt her Biden vote didn’t mean much in her home state, which she said was going to remain blue, even after she cast her absentee ballot and received an “I’m a Cornellian and I voted” sticker.
The government major said she phone and text banked for Michigan and Texas for the first time before Election Day, energizing voters to get to the polls and distributing the information to get them there.
“With our Electoral College process, the whole election can hinge on states that I admittedly don’t think a lot about because I don’t have a connection to them,” Fuchs said. “I cannot focus on the past tense of Spanish verbs when I’m thinking about the election. No one is apathetic. Everyone is excited and feeling pretty anxious. Everyone knows how high the stakes are.”
Fuchs added that she struggled to focus in her classes all day Tuesday as she checked MSNBC and CNN in between Zoom calls, worried how swing states would steer the election. By Tuesday night, she felt tense but cautiously optimistic.
But in other corners of campus, election night came without ballot delays and with more calm than anxiety as the results rolled in.
For Joe Silverstein ’22, a member of the Cornell College Republicans and an editor of the conservative campus publication The Cornell Review, the polls were tallying in his favor, as he flipped between Fox News and CNN coverage. The same states that worried Lei calmed Silverstein.
“I’m very happy so far,” Silverstein, who voted for Trump, said around 11 p.m. “I’m fairly happy with President Trump’s performance. He’s doing great in Florida. That has to go for Trump so it’s looking very well right now.”
Early Wednesday morning, Trump had been declared the winner of the Sunshine State after a tight race — the state is critical to his chances for a second term.
But as the election drags on, many Cornell students are wary of the outcome after months of bracing for a week riddled with ballot issues and lots of waiting.
“I am very anxious right now, but it’s also like, what can you do,” Lei said. “There’s a lot at stake. I was planning on staying up really late, but I might go to sleep early. It is what it is at this point.”
Luke Pichini ’22 contributed reporting.