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Return to Sender: Voter Suppression and Civic Engagement as the Election Nears

On Tuesday, July 14, Jessie Cheung ’24 stood inside a Dallas polling station, checking IDs, updating voter information, and passing out ballots. Despite the dangers of voting amid the COVID-19 crisis, the line stretched far out the door. After two hours of waiting, people were eager to cast their vote in the primary runoff. 

This was not Cheung’s first time poll working, and she knew the tactics which had led to the long lines at this particular polling location: A group of poll workers had signed up to staff a nearby polling place and not shown up in a concerted effort to suppress voter turnout. 

Cheung knew she could make a difference in her community by working at the perennially understaffed polling place.

“Texas is really, really lacking in poll workers,” she pointed out in an interview with The Politic. “It’s up to the younger people to step up.” For the past several years, Cheung has sought to fill those shoes and lead her community to register and vote. 

But this year, she worries she will not be able to vote herself.

With just weeks until what many consider the most critical election in decades, Yale students from across the country are facing obstacles to voting by mail. Most students have to jump through several hoops to receive a ballot. This will be many students’ first time voting absentee—or voting at all. Even with campus civic engagement organizations working overtime, the process to register and request an absentee ballot can be arduous. These difficulties are only magnified by restrictions on mail-in voting implemented in response to the pandemic and ongoing United States Postal Service (USPS) delays.

Even when attempting to vote during non-pandemic years, students living in Yale housing have faced added difficulties. During the 2018 midterms, ballots sent to residential college addresses were returned to sender, leaving many Yalies unable to vote. Though campus groups have worked with the university to rectify past mistakes and provide students with updated resources, memories of those issues remain a cause for concern. This year, USPS delays threaten to disenfranchise students who do not request materials long before Election Day. As voting deadlines loom, many students who began the process months ago have not yet received their ballots. Some fear they never will.

Requiring voters to mail both a physical application and a ballot can serve as an additional barrier for college students, who often lack printers and stamps and rarely use “snail mail.” After registering to vote, Cheung embarked on a trying, multi-step process to request an absentee ballot: she and other Texas voters must complete, sign, and mail a ten-part application to the county elections clerk by October 23, 11 days prior to the election. That’s assuming they receive one in the first place. 

Despite requesting an Application for a Ballot by Mail twice, once in July and again in early August, the clerk’s office never confirmed that her requests had been processed, nor did they provide notice that the forms were sent. Neither application arrived. 

Eventually, a friend from Texas gave her a spare application, which she mailed to the elections clerk in mid-September, two months after she first requested the document.

“I’m so excited to vote and feel like I have a say in things,” Cheung shared, and then she paused. “But I came to Yale, and there are so many hurdles I have to jump.”

***

For Cheung, this election is about more than just policy: “It’s about what America looks like and what America’s people want.” 

Before Cheung moved to Dallas in eighth grade, she knew little about politics. She describes her hometown of Belton—a small, conservative and majority-white town in central Texas—as a “redneck, kind of yee-haw place” where political engagement was rarely discussed. 

Likewise, her parents, who immigrated from China to the United States as middle schoolers, never broached the topic. 

“They don’t know how to vote. They don’t know about politics,” Cheung said. “How are they supposed to know of something [about which] nothing has been taught to them?”

It wasn’t until she moved to Dallas that Cheung first saw the power of the political system and the real consequences of public policy. 

“I became aware of a whole new world that impacted me,” she remembered. That initial shock has since grown into a passion rooted in responsibility to her community. “I have to be involved, because if I’m not involved, then my family won’t be involved.” 

Still, barriers to voting could prevent even the most enthusiastic voters from casting their ballots. State legislatures across the country, particularly those with Republican majorities like Texas, have repeatedly demurred to make mail-in voting more accessible, even when in-person voting poses a health risk due to COVID-19. Just weeks ago, a federal court rejected a Democratic challenge to the Texas law forbidding in-county absentee voting for citizens under 65.  Texas is also one of the 16 states that requires an excuse to vote by mail; despite the pandemic, only voters over 65, disabled, incarcerated, or out of the county on Election Day are eligible to receive absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, at a time when more people will be voting absentee than ever before, ongoing delays with USPS deliveries represent another barrier to mail-in voting. After the appointment of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in July of 2020, mail delays increased significantly across the country, according to an analysis by The Upshot and data published by the USPS. 

Over the four weeks between mid-August and mid-September, an average of 46 percent of first-class mail arrived a day late—significantly more than usual. Many of these delays were directly tied to a new rule enacted by DeJoy in July instructing trucks to leave processing facilities on time in the morning, regardless of whether the day’s mail is all loaded. The mail left behind is typically not processed until the next day, resulting in increased delays.

Though the USPS has promised to prioritize delivering ballots, such structural changes threaten to increase the delivery times as more voters choose absentee. In states which require a physical ballot to arrive by Election Day, even one-day delays could invalidate thousands of votes.

In the July 2020 primary election, a Texas Tribune report showed that 3,010 of 199,218 votes cast by mail across Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend, and Hidalgo counties were not counted due to tardiness. With increased strain expected on the USPS during the general election, that number seems likely to rise.

Amidst widespread concern over mail-in voting challenges, prominent politicians—including President Trump—have complained loudly about the potential for election fraud. In July, the president tweeted “Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election,” though a Washington Post analysis revealed only 372 potential cases of fraud among the 14.6 million absentee ballots cast in 2016 and 2018. Some worry that if Americans are convinced that mail-in voting is illegitimate, the party that loses the election may dispute its outcome.

Conservative politicians have also alluded to another reason for their distrust of mail-in voting. In April, the President tweeted that absentee voting “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” Election experts, however, paint a different picture. Though absentee voting does increase turnout, experts suggest that it provides no partisan advantage.

On Thursday, October 1, citing ballot security issues, Texas Governor Greg Abbott decreed a limit of one ballot drop-off location per county. This policy will particularly affect Texans in Democratic strongholds like Harris County, which covers an area larger than Rhode Island and currently boasts 12 ballot drop-off locations. In the court filing that proposed this new limit, Abbott claimed mail-in voting fraud was a “frequent and enduring problem in Texas,” despite evidence suggesting it is extremely rare.

“It’s not easy for me, and I am, obviously, really, really trying to vote,” Cheung lamented. “You would think it would be a lot easier to do it considering it’s your ‘civic duty.’”

***

Mail-in voting has always presented challenges. Social distancing and COVID-19 have only magnified these difficulties as citizens seek out alternative voting methods to avoid Election Day crowds. For populations where mail-in voting is the norm—including college campuses—these problems have long existed. 

During the midterm elections in 2018, Yale’s Campus Mail Service returned to sender ballots that were sent to residential college addresses, leading to accusations that Yale was disenfranchising students—particularly those who could not afford a 90-dollar P.O. box. Some students weren’t even aware that they were allowed to send absentee ballots to their residential colleges, nor what the protocol was for retrieving them. Some never got their ballots at all.

In 2018, Iman Jaroudi ’22 was a first-year in Trumbull College who spent weeks trying to figure out how to request an absentee ballot for her home state of Kansas. 

“I didn’t have stamps. I did not know where to buy stamps. I remember asking my Head of College’s office, and they were like, ‘We don’t have stamps yet, but we might get them,’” Jaroudi said in an interview with The Politic. “I guess that was the first roadblock. I just physically could not figure out how to send back my application.” 

Her county election office eventually approved the request. But as of Election Day, her absentee ballot still had not arrived at Trumbull. As she contemplated what to do next, hundreds of Yale students lined up at City Hall for same-day voter registration—only to be informed of a four-hour wait time that jeopardized their ability to vote before polls closed. Jaroudi herself seriously considered a last-ditch effort to vote at City Hall, but decided not to. 

“I remember a bunch of people telling me, ‘It’s still not too late to go! You can register and vote in Connecticut.’ But I was really sad because I knew Connecticut was going to go blue,” Jaroudi confessed. 

“In my home state, we had a very competitive gubernatorial race that year that I really wanted to vote in. And I was like, if I can’t vote in my home state’s governor’s election, I don’t even know if I want to vote at all.”

The ballot arrived at her residential college the day after the election.

Keeping lessons from the 2018 midterms in mind, Yale Votes and Every Vote Counts (EVC) have led the charge to improve Yale’s policies around voting by mail. Jonathan Schwartz ‘21 helped found EVC, a national student-led nonprofit which began at Yale in 2017 and has since expanded to around 50 colleges and universities. In addition to working as EVC’s Director of Voter Engagement, Schwartz also helped create Yale Votes, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations that aim to facilitate voting for students, including the administration, Yale College Council, and Yale College Democrats. 

This year, the university promises to ensure that mail-in ballots can be sent to residential Head of Colleges’ addresses so that students without P.O. boxes can still receive their ballots. Residential colleges will also be equipped with stamps and envelopes for students. 

Yale Votes has also onboarded “state captains” to assist peers with voting absentee; launched a voter-friendly faculty initiative; and created the Yale TurboVote tool for voter registration and ballot requests, which around 1,600 Yale students have used.

In an interview with The Politic, Schwartz highlighted the importance of finding new methods to engage with students amid the pandemic, including by bringing faculty into the mission. 

“We want to get faculty on board because, especially right now in a remote learning setting, going to class may be someone’s strongest connection to the campus culture,” he said.

Across Yale, student groups are working to get faculty to lean into the civic component of a liberal arts education. Faculty from a broad variety of departments have emailed students, encouraging them to vote, and Schwartz believes their efforts are making a real difference—yet many question if Yale itself has done enough.

The administration has declined to cancel classes on Election Day, which would not only make it easier for Connecticut-registered Yale students to vote in-person, but could help alleviate local poll worker shortages.

In New Haven and across the country, many veteran poll workers are older and therefore at greater risk of complications from COVID-19. Recruiting younger volunteers, like college students, for in-person election work is critical, but incredibly difficult if those students have class. Polling places are often far from Yale’s main campus, presenting a problem both for those who choose to vote in New Haven and those who wish to volunteer. 

“It’s absurd that Election Day is not a holiday for students,” Jaroudi said. “We know that a lot of students are going to be poll workers here in New Haven. We know that a lot of students are going to want to vote in-person here in Connecticut, whether or not they are Connecticut residents.” 

Students are attempting to reverse the administration’s decision on the issue, but with little success. 

“It’s just crazy to me,” Jaroudi continued. “It’s crazy that hasn’t happened yet.”

But there is still reason to be optimistic. There is a pervasive feeling that Yalies are more engaged this year than during previous elections. 

“We know how many Yale students are registering to vote and the numbers are really encouraging,” Schwartz highlighted. 

Cheung has also noticed an increase in civic engagement and excitement among Texas Democrats; according to a recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College, President Trump is leading by only three points in Texas. For the first time since 1976, a Democratic presidential nominee has a real chance of winning the state. The momentum moved Cheung to recall how energized voters felt in 2018, when Beto O’Rourke mounted a competitive Senate bid against incumbent Ted Cruz. 

“Texas was so close to turning blue,” she said. “[O’Rourke] lost by so little, and after that, it was quiet throughout my school for weeks.” That race changed things, Cheung added. “So many people showed up, and they now know that showing up matters. They will show up for this presidential election.”

Despite the many complications with voting this year, this feeling of momentum—and the years of effort by campus voting organizations—makes Schwartz think more Yale students will vote this year than ever. 

“There’s a bunch of hurdles, and it’s a really difficult process, but we have a great team that tries to work and make it as easy as possible,” he explained. “We’re very lucky that the administration is pretty open to working with us to make it easy for Yale students to vote.” 

Jaroudi still mourns her lost opportunity to vote in a midterm election she cared deeply about. She still thinks that Yale should be doing more. Yet she believes that Yale will do better this November than they did two years earlier. 

“If there’s a silver lining,” Jaroudi noted, “I feel very confident that it won’t happen again.”