American University students Meredith Reilly and Zachary Houdek requested absentee ballots earlier this fall. But when they realized on Sunday, with just over a week until Election Day, that their mail-in ballots had yet to arrive, the pair hopped in the car and drove 27 hours from Washington, DC, to Texas to cast their ballots in person for the 2020 election.
“We’re particularly motivated,” Reilly told CNN. “I never expected my vote to matter that much. But this election is getting very close and exciting,” Reilly said.
Reilly and Houdek, both 20 years old, want to play their part in what they said is a historic election.
According to the pair, before leaving for Texas, not only had their mail-in ballots not yet arrived at their off campus housing in DC, but they had both not yet received confirmation that their ballots had even been processed.
Reilly and Houdek’s 1,300-mile drive is a testament to the commitment of young people to cast their ballot this year.
But despite young people’s high enthusiasm to vote, voting has not been made easy for college-aged Americans. Unprocessed ballot requests, missing mail-in ballots and even difficulty registering because of changed addresses have made voting difficult ahead of the 2020 election, young adults from across the country told CNN.
The college juniors said they voted absentee in Texas from DC in the 2018 midterm elections without a problem.
But, “this election has been so different, it’s been horrible,” Houdek said, pointing to his struggle to obtain a mail-in ballot in 2020. When he realized the absentee voting window was closing, both he and Reilly decided they had no choice but to drive to their home state and vote in person.
The issues with voting described by Houdek, Reilly and others comes as a high number of the 20 million college students nationwide have been forced to live off-campus because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts, many college students aren’t on campus right now, which they say, could complicate voting for students.
“Chaos and confusion in voting affects all voters, but especially college student voters,” Thomas, the institute’s director, told CNN. She added that many students who learned how to vote and voted for the first time during the 2018 midterms may have to rethink their voting practices because of a change in location.
It also comes as polling data and high levels of voter engagement indicate 2020 may bring out a wave of young voters, experts say.
According to early voting data provided by Catalist, a company that provides data, analytics and other services to Democrats, academics and nonprofit issue-advocacy organizations and is giving new insights into who is voting before November, younger voters (age 18-29) are casting significantly more ballots and make up a greater share of the pre-Election Day vote than they did around the same time four years ago in all of the key states with information available.
But, despite high enthusiasm from young voters and reasons to believe there will be high youth voter turnout, experts warn that it’s too early to jump to any conclusions about the youth vote in 2020.
“The story is not yet written. There are hurdles for student voters in this election,” Gismondi, the institute’s director of impact, told CNN. “Right now motivation seems to be there for students to engage in the election, but logistical hurdles still exist.”
‘By the time I get the ballot, it could be too late’
Zara Johnson, 18, won’t be able to vote this November.
On her 18th birthday this July, Johnson registered to vote in Reading, Pennsylvania. Despite not having a driver’s license, Johnson said the online voter registration process was straightforward.
But when it came time to request her absentee ballot, Johnson, a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said the process was far more complicated, and she could not complete it online.
Though she tried for weeks, she was unable to request the absentee ballot before the deadline.
Now, she can’t vote in the 2020 election, she told CNN.
“You know how on your 16th birthday you get your license? To me, on my 18th birthday I could register to vote. To me, that was more exciting than getting my license,” Johnson said.
Johnson considered going home to Pennsylvania to vote on Election Day, but was hesitant to do so as her mother works in health care. Johnson feared that if she were to go back home, she would risk exposing her mother to the virus. On top of that, even if Johnson did go home, since she would be coming from South Carolina, she would have to quarantine for 14 days, as per Pennsylvania’s Covid-19 travel recommendations — at which point she would miss the 2020 election.
Even for students who were able to successfully request their absentee ballots, some report that the ballots never arrived.
Bruce Wilson, 21 and a senior at Hampton University in Virginia, worked to organize his peers around the 2020 election, getting friends involved and registered to vote who may not have otherwise, Wilson told CNN.
Wilson convened a group of friends to request their absentee ballots and go through the process step by step together. But with five days until November 3, many of them have yet to receive their mail-in ballots.
Wilson, who is from Chicago, says he requested his absentee ballot five weeks ago, but it has not yet arrived at his off-campus apartment in Virginia.
For Wilson, voting is a “ritual” he said, and at this point, he plans to go home to Chicago to vote on Election Day.
“I’ve been trying to avoid being home because I have parents and grandparents who I’m trying to avoid because of the Covid issue,” Wilson said, adding that due to Covid-19 and financial reasons, many of his peers will not be able to do the same.
“This is a small form of voter suppression that I feel like we have experienced being away from the place we are registered to vote. We’re just like siloed,” Wilson said. “This is one election that I can say that a lot of people who weren’t registered to vote before and weren’t excited about voting went out of their way to do the proper steps to get their ballot counted and we’re still experiencing troubles.”
Wilson’s friend, Brandi Howliet, also 21, a senior at Hampton and from Chicago, is in a similar situation.
Howliet told CNN she requested her ballot in September. The ballot was mailed from Chicago and arrived in Virginia, on October 23, Howliet says, noting she tracked the ballot. But the ballot was never delivered to her apartment because of a missing apartment number, and it was sent back to Chicago as a result. Howliet called the Chicago Board of Elections when the tracker said her ballot had been returned to Chicago, and they told her they were resending the ballot with the updated address.
At this point, Howliet has yet to vote, and is “extremely worried” she won’t be able to, she told CNN. Howliet says she lost her license earlier this month, and so she can’t board a plane to Chicago.
“I’m kind of stuck,” she said.
“I was so excited because in 2016, I wasn’t old enough to vote. So now that I actually have the opportunity to, I’m looking forward to it,” Howliet added. “By the time I get the ballot, it could be too late.”
Yasmin El Zaher, a 23-year-old in Pennsylvania, is also worried she will not be able to vote in 2020, she told CNN.
“I am so nervous it’s literally giving me anxiety,” she said.
El Zaher was previously enrolled at Temple University and voted in Philadelphia during the 2016 election and 2018 midterms, she said.
But El Zaher has not been able to attend school for the past two semesters, as she can no longer afford the cost of tuition, and therefore, does not currently live in Philadelphia where she was previously registered to vote.
El Zaher now lives with her family in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where she struggled to register. She said she tried to register online twice but had no success.
In mid-October, El Zaher went to the county office and ultimately registered to vote, but there was a malfunction in Pennsylvania’s system that day and she was asked to come back to actually cast her ballot.
When she left, the county office told El Zaher they would mail her ID card but, with five days until the Election, her ID card has not arrived.
El Zaher, who works to organize other voters, is worried the card will never arrive, she told CNN, saying she can’t put her feelings of frustration into words.
“It’s really just devastating. I can’t even put into words how I feel. It’s so hard talking to people who are voting or seeing them post pictures mailing in their ballot or with their I voted sticker and me knowing that might not be me,” she said.