Massachusetts college students weigh voting options amid pandemic

Voters line up in front of Gate A at Fenway Park on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. Photo by Luciano Cesta/BU News Service.

By Haley Lerner
BU News Service

While voter participation among young people has historically been low, college students have a new hurdle to face when figuring out how to vote in this year’s presidential election: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alex Psilakis, the spokesperson for MassVOTE, an organization that aims to increase voter participation in the commonwealth, said it is important students understand all the options they have this year when it comes to voting. 

“I think everyone understands how important the election is and how much is on the line so I really hope [college students], whether they are on campus or at home, can vote,” Psilakis said. “It’s more accessible than ever, so I really hope they can utilize these options.”

Grace Bertrand, a senior at Salem State University said when she mailed her ballot for the September primary election to her hometown of Amherst, she used the Massachusetts ballot-tracking website and found that her town never received the ballot — leaving her vote uncounted.  

“I was just so bummed to see that my vote had literally meant nothing,” Bertrand said. “That’s just super wild, that’s not something I ever really expected to have happen. My family in Amherst, all their votes were counted, so it made me feel maybe it was because, like, I had sent mine from far away and it didn’t get there in time.”

Worried her vote won’t be counted once again, Bertrand is choosing to turn in her absentee ballot at an official drop-off box in her hometown instead of mailing it in. She chose this method over voting in person because she is worried about potentially contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to her coworkers and roommates back in Salem.

Amy-Mei Lynch, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is also choosing to drop off her mail-in ballot at a secure drop-off location. Lynch, originally from Amherst, is worried about the safety risks of voting on Election Day, but is also concerned that the federal government is slowing down the U.S. Postal Service.

“I think those are really legitimate concerns, people saying that the USPS will be overloaded and that it’ll be harder to vote by mail because of this,” Lynch said. “I think those are real concerns but I don’t think that it’s less safe or less secure to vote by mail.”

Ella Peterson, a junior at Amherst College, is staying in Maine with a friend instead of living on campus. Her location has complicated the process of sending in her absentee ballot to her hometown of Morristown, New Jersey.

In years past, Peterson’s absentee ballot was sent to her home address, which her mother then sent to her in Massachusetts. Now, worried her ballot will take too long to make it from Maine, she will return home sometime before the election to deliver her ballot to an official drop-off box, like Bertrand and Lynch.

“It was like a whole bit of an ordeal to figure out how I was going to vote,” she said. “It definitely took thinking through.”

Peterson works as a regional representative for Delaware and New Jersey for Amherst Votes, a group on campus aiming to increase voter registration and participation. She worked to help several students’ who had their absentee ballots sent to their on-campus mailboxes in Amherst, despite them living elsewhere as a result of the pandemic. Luckily, Peterson said, her school helped mail ballots to those who needed them.

“I’ve been hearing from some people who are just going to go back to their home addresses to vote,” Peterson said, “which is kind of like the worst case scenario I think because it just requires a lot of travel and a lot of a lot of extra effort.”

Seamus Lombardo, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the co-chair of MITvote, another campus organization that aims to increase voter engagement. He said his group helped voter participation at MIT triple between the last two midterm elections in 2014 and 2018.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing more voting concerns, MITvote is holding virtual office hours as well as online panels to help answer students’ questions about voting. On Oct. 11, the group held the Get Out the Vote Festival, a virtual concert featuring student performers, speakers and headlined by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and R&B artist Bren Joy.

“There are real challenges across the board due to COVID, but I do think that we really need to rise to the occasion,” Lombardo said. “All college students and members of our generation need to vote and also need to volunteer to be poll workers to prevent polling place closures and in general our generation needs to step up and make our voices heard.”

Lombardo is originally from New York, but changed his registration to vote in Cambridge in 2018 after getting invested in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race and ballot question initiatives. Now, he is choosing to vote early in the presidential election to try not to overload the mail-in voting system.

“I’m very fortunate here in Cambridge that we have ready access to in-person early voting,” Lombardo said. “That allows me to go at a time where I’m not worried about the very legitimate risks from being in a crowded place during COVID, but not have to deal with any potential hiccups that might be from voting by mail this year.”

Eva Anderson, a senior at MIT and treasurer for MITvote, said the group is trying to work with the university’s administration to get “pro-voting” policies passed on campus, such as professors not having assignments due on Election Day or making class optional so students have time to vote.

Anderson already sent in her absentee ballot to her home state of Minnesota.

“We’re always advocating to lower every barrier as possible for students to vote,” she said.

While helping students with their voting issues, Anderson said she has found that several Massachusetts students who recently registered to vote had not yet had their information updated in the state’s system, resulting in a delay before they could request their absentee ballot.

“What I have been doing is reaching out to their county election commission and requesting their ballot that way or dropping off a form directly,” she said. “Almost always their registration has been received but it hasn’t been updated yet. So that’s pretty frustrating because a lot of times students want to register and then request a ballot as soon as possible.”

The process was pretty simple, she said, except for having to call her county election commissioner to change the address her ballot was being sent to from her home address to where she is living in Massachusetts. There was no option on the state’s online absentee portal to change the address which she said made the process “annoying.”

Ryan Wallace, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and president of UMass Lowell College Democrats, said he will be voting absentee in Massachusetts because he is concerned about the safety risk of voting in-person.

“I would really prefer not to go out in-person because I have had a few COVID scares in the past and thankfully I haven’t gotten COVID but I’ve gotten sick a few times,” Wallace said. “So I’d really rather avoid risking exposure if I can.”

Troy Lafond, a junior at UMass Lowell and vice president of the UMass Lowell College Democrats, is planning to drive home from his off-campus apartment in Lowell to vote early in-person in his hometown of Bellingham.

“I was mostly leaning absentee for safety reasons, but just with everything going on with the ballot drop off locations, the shuttering of the USPS, all of those factors have made me worry,” he said. “I trust mail-in voting for sure, I don’t think I would have an issue of fraud, I’m mostly worried about my ballot actually getting to the polling place so they can count properly.”

Elijah Zeh, a sophomore at UMass Amherst and vice president of the UMass College Republicans, said he is choosing to vote in-person in his hometown of Lancaster because he is worried about his ballot being tampered with if he were to send it in the mail.

“I want to be able to have my hands on my ballot as much I can,” Zeh said.

Having voted in-person in the recent primary election, Zeh said he felt the process was safe.

“The only person that touches your ballot besides you is the person at the desk who’s handing it to you,” he said. “Social distancing is enforced, everyone’s wearing a mask.”

Benjamin Gilsdorf, a senior at Amherst College originally from Amherst, said while he requested an absentee ballot in September, he still had not received it as of Oct. 16. He’s called his town clerk already and will have to request a new one ballot if he does not receive one soon. Gilsdorf said he is getting “antsy” he will not receive it in time.

Amherst is under strict COVID-19 protocols that require anyone who wants to leave campus to obtain permission from college officials. Even though his polling location is just a few minutes away, Gilsdorf is stuck on campus and unable to vote in-person.

“My sort of contingency plan now is to email the college and beg them to let me leave campus just for five minutes to run into town and do early voting,” Gilsdorf said. “I don’t want to leave mail-in voting up to chance.”

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