Printers, P.O. Boxes, Presidential parties, and posts in black were not the things Isabella Dominguez ‘24 thought of when she celebrated turning eighteen this year in her home in Miami, Florida, or got her acceptance from Yale. In no way could she have known how all these would impact her next few summer months through tensions COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential election. Yet, she is one of many people exposed to many social and political movements this summer and feels inclined to do something about it.
“I’m a first-generation child of an immigrant: a first-generation American. And for me to be born in America and not use my right to vote—I feel like that’s a disservice,” Dominguez said in an interview with The Politic. “A lot of people who live where I’m from, they come from countries where the government is so unstable, and the elections are corrupt,” she was eager to explain. “I feel like by not voting, I would perpetuate that kind of model.”
For her, Yale seems like a perfect fit, as almost all Yalies pride themselves on being engaged citizens and leaders who take action on issues they’re passionate about. However, Yale’s voter turnout track record does not reflect this enthusiasm. In 2016, only 56.7 percent of eligible Yalies voted (only 1.2 percent higher than the national average). Around half of these voters were undergraduates. Out of these voters, the most common method was voting in person on election day at polling stations. Only 37.8 percent of Yalies voted by mail or absentee ballot.
The 2020 election is undoubtedly an election like no others, and despite their passion for civic engagement and social issues, many Yalies cannot vote in person on election day. Nevertheless, Yale’s voter advocacy organizations are hopeful that Yalies will submit ballots in unprecedented numbers. To overcome challenges for experienced and non-experienced voters alike in the time of COVID, Every Vote Counts (EVC), the Yale Democrats (Yale Dems), and Yale College Council (YCC) have combined their efforts under the uniform non-partisan platform of Yale Votes.
Yale Dems President Molly Shapiro ‘21, who has done voter activism work, was excited to share insight how Yale Votes plans to motivate Yalies to vote.
“We are grappling with a lot, especially since everything is virtual. I think what we are trying to do is make it as easy as possible to vote,” Shapiro explained in an interview with The Politic. “We are trying to really message by firstly saying look at what happened over the summer with the outpouring on social media about protests and policies related to policing. We must view voting as another avenue to make our voices heard.”
Yalies like Dominguez, who want to vote, face many questions on how to do so during a pandemic.
“At first it was confusing how to vote on campus because a lot of it was, ‘Do I need a P.O. box to vote? Do I need to request an absentee ballot myself? Do I need to get it mailed to me?’ All the logistics part of it,” first-time voter Dominguez outlined.
Shapiro herself shared her struggles, despite her background of experience and knowledge of voting.
“I have been doing this work for quite some time and tried to change my address yesterday to vote in CT, and it truly was an arduous task—a process that made me click on a million different links and try to print something then mail it,” she explained. “Then I needed to print the form, but I don’t have a printer, so then I had to find a printer. Especially in the age of COVID, it’s a huge barrier. So there is just not an easy way to register to vote, though voting itself is typically straightforward.”
Kara O’Rourke ‘23, treasurer of EVC and who is now taking a gap year, agrees from her standpoint as well.
“Voting takes a lot of effort, planning. The registration outline for every state is incredibly different. And most people don’t think about election day until election day. So it takes a certain type of person to have all that forethought to put all the effort into requesting it, printing these forms, and mailing anything.”
In addition to information on voter deadlines, how to vote, and different state legislations outlined on the Yale Votes website, Yale Votes is also actively engaging with Yalies. Emails are being sent out by YCC and the Yale Administration to bring awareness about deadlines, voting procedures, and overall increase the sentiment of prioritizing Yalies’ voting. Yale Votes has also created a Froco curriculum (independent of the Yale Administration) to educate first-time voters on voting in Connecticut.
“I know first years on campus this year, and even last year, never had the chance to vote in a presidential election. That can be a big deal to people,” says O’Rourke. “EVC is teaching a couple of classes that are geared more towards first-years about how to vote.”
“I guess in my case, it’s kind of hard to receive an absentee ballot because my mom is the one that’s mailing me my absentee ballot. So it’s all over the place, and I’ve already registered to vote, but it doesn’t show up that way. It’s confusing on that end.” said Dominguez. But, with the help provided, she is finding her way to voting.
“Especially now, with the election coming up and voter registration deadlines coming up, I have even gotten an email from someone from Florida, a Yalie,” she continues.
Personal outreach, virtual or not, seems to be working. Dominguez shared that despite all odds, amongst all students “there’s been a lot of talk about how to vote, how to register to vote, how to get absentee ballots.”
Yale Votes is continuing its in-person efforts to help voters get the information they need in a socially distanced manner on campus, although decreased compared to regular years.
O’Rourke notes that “usually, we have a big set up on Cross Campus, lots of tables, lots of foods, a big voter registration day, hyped up by YCC.” While that isn’t the same this year, there are still volunteers at dining halls and cafes readily available to inform potential voters.
Dominguez confirmed this, “I’ve been stopped on Cross Campus and asked if I’m registered to vote. There is a lot of communication now, as the election is coming up.”
However, it is essential to note that access to information is only one contributor to increasing voter turnout. There are also the non-informational roadblocks to voting Yalies face.
For one, “Stamps are 55 cents, which isn’t a lot to some people, but is a lot to other people,” says O’Rourke. To decrease on-campus voter suppression this year due to financial concerns of Yalies, Yale Votes has worked with the Yale Administration so that this year’s campus students will receive free stamps and envelopes. There will also be an attempt to implement more on-campus printers, and this year students can use their Residential College’s P.O. box (and not pay for one themselves) to receive and mail in their votes.
While these efforts do much to solve primary absentee voting concerns, another group of voter suppression makes voting on election day difficult.
Henry Smith ‘22, a member of Yale Dems, believes it’s important to recognize how and why there is a STEM student voter suppression pattern at Yale.
“One of the reasons I believe that voter turnout is so low at Yale is a lack of support and resources for students,” he said. “For instance, many students have classes on election day, attend three-hour labs, work student jobs, or support family at home, especially this semester with COVID-related difficulties. So one of the main difficulties many people don’t recognize is that student voters, by nature of being students themselves, face a lot of barriers to voting.”
The Yale Administration joined the Ivy Votes Coalition in May, providing a friendly competition for Yalies to increase their ballot numbers. Following in the footsteps of universities like Harvard, Dean Marvin Chun has recently joined the “All-In-Challenge,” aiming for 100 percent voter turnout amongst students.
Smith provided insight into why and how both faculty and the administration are critical to solving the issues faced regarding access to voting at Yale.
“I believe Dean Chun agrees with me on this: every student—regardless of their major, of their background—should have an equal opportunity to vote,” he says. He added, “This semester, although we have the general support of the administration, the next step is making sure that faculty across the board is truly invested in having their students vote. I believe that by faculty members supporting students, we can truly show that our university is invested in democracy, ensuring that every student has an equal opportunity to vote.”
In addition to promoting voting information, Yale Votes has asked that faculty members excuse student poll workers’ absences and do not assign major assignments or exams on election day. The latter especially, due to COVID-19, O’Rourke mentions, is critical for voting on election day in 2020.
“There are two polling places in New Haven. It’s cold, it might be raining, and public transportation isn’t the safest right now. It’s really easy for me to vote this year, but not really easy for many other people. I’m going to be volunteering as a poll worker if I can because that’s also important.” O’Rourke said, “A lot of poll volunteers usually are elderly, and a lot of those people won’t be volunteering this year across the country. But if there aren’t enough poll volunteers, then they can’t have certain polling stations so there will be fewer of them, which means they’ll be more spread out, and the lines will be longer and that’s very bad. So young people, if they feel safe, should be volunteering to help if they can.”
Shapiro elaborated, “If we all are proactive about requesting absentee ballots ahead of the election or registering to vote so that we don’t have to do it on the day of, it’ll avoid a lot of the issues that caused so many people not to have their voices heard in 2018.”
Beyond Yale Votes and the Yale administration, increasing voter turnout seems to fall on student voters themselves.
Yalies like Dominguez look eagerly upon voting because “It’s the simplest way to act on your belief: just to vote. It’s not about being an activist; it’s just putting a name on a ballot.
Smith alike believes, “To me, learning isn’t something that only happens inside the classroom, and so one way students can learn about how their voices matter is by casting a ballot this November.”
During regular general elections, party politics tend to create divisiveness in voting and decrease the number of people who vote; in 2020, everything seems to have changed. Students’ passion for social issues driven by recent West Coast fires, BLM, COVID-19, and Justice Ginsburg’s replacement may inspire them to come out of the swamp of disillusionment.
One reason for this disillusionment with partisanship and polarization is the media emphasis. Some people who don’t consider themselves politically minded see voting as a political act rather than a civic act, and they do not vote. Other people, who consider themselves politically minded, see no candidate to match their views perfectly, and they do not vote. However, the controversies surrounding Biden this election may not be enough to dissuade voters and make this the case in 2020. This election, Trump’s controversiality seems to transcend parties and imperfect politics, and serve as a motivator for many more people to vote.
Shapiro agreed, saying that “I think there is not a sense of Democrat vs. Republican this year. It just feels much more extreme and that there is much more at stake.”
She also stated that at Yale this year, “we are trying to really message by firstly saying look at what happened over the summer with the outpouring on social media about protests and policies related to policing. We have the power as young people to call attention to the issues that matter most to us. We must view voting as another avenue to make our voices heard.”
Smith stated that “I think this year more so than ever, with all the media attention surrounding this election, that energy will be directed to students voting.”
Dominguez’s observations are a testament to how this is a reality for Yalies. She has seen that “on both ends, on both parties, people want to vote.” Many seem to share her resolution that “The whole idea that a vote doesn’t matter doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to at least vote.”
While Yalies do not know who will win the election, they should know that their votes matter. Voting is perhaps the only way to claim responsibility for the results of the election, and to what policies are enacted and operated in our country, and what we stand for. Many of us agree that posting or liking a picture in black is not enough to enact our beliefs and create change. Especially in unprecedented times, Yalies must come together and use printers and P.O. boxes to vote in the presidential election.
In retrospect, perhaps Dominguez’s birthday wish should have been that she represents the norm in her community who will be voting for God, for Country, and for Yale.