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Undergraduates Confront Mail-In Voting Obstacles as 2020 Election Nears

Undergraduates are navigating an unusual election cycle this year.
Undergraduates are navigating an unusual election cycle this year. By Christine E Mansour
By Jasper G. Goodman, Crimson Staff Writer

At least once per day, Michael Yin ’22 finds himself doing something young people aren’t exactly known for: checking his mailbox.

Yin — a Maryland native living in Massachusetts for the semester — has been left in limbo as he awaits the arrival of an absentee ballot, which he says he requested over a month ago.

“When there’s some mail, I get excited thinking that maybe it’s the ballot — but it hasn’t been,” he said.

With less than a week to go until Election Day on Tuesday, Yin said he has signed up to do get-out-the-vote phone banking so he is able to participate in the democratic process, even if his ballot ultimately doesn’t arrive on time.

Harvard students across the country have confronted similar mail delays — along with signature rejections, defective envelopes, and other obstacles to mail-in voting — amid a pandemic-spurred flood of absentee ballot requests that is overwhelming local elections officials around the country.

“In many ways, I feel like [officials] were not prepared to do absentee voting at this level,” said Kyra I. March ’22, who is still awaiting her ballot after sending in two requests to local election officials in South Carolina, the first of which they told her did not arrive.

March, who expects her ballot to arrive in the coming days, said she plans to ship it back with Priority Mail Express in the hope that it will arrive by Nov. 3. South Carolina is one of 32 states that require ballots to arrive — rather than be postmarked — by Election Day.

“I think it can really turn off younger voters from wanting to even cast their absentee ballot,” she said of such hurdles.

Maya E. Woods-Arthur ’23, the Organizing Director of the Harvard Votes Challenge — which aims to increase voter turnout among Harvard affiliates — said organizers have seen an uptick in the number of students facing barriers to voting.

“Elections offices are severely underfunded and don’t have the capacity to deal with this overwhelming interest in voting by mail,” Woods-Arthur said. “So of course their systems are slower and of course they’re not able to update information in time, which is super unfortunate for students who want to vote absentee.”

Voting processes and procedures that vary widely by state have further complicated HVC's efforts, according to Woods-Arthur.

For Mississippi native Noah Harris ’22, for example, voting absentee requires a notary public to certify a signature on both the absentee ballot request and the ballot itself.

“In Mississippi, just in general, it’s very difficult to vote,” Harris said. “I don’t think there’s a state where it’s more difficult to vote in the country, absentee at least. There’s just so many hoops you have to jump through.”

Although he says he changed his address on record, Harris’ first ballot was mailed to his former address at Dunster House, requiring him to request another one.

“If I wasn’t so passionate about this, and about voting and about politics in general, it would be really easy for me to just say, ‘why bother with it?’” Harris said. “And that’s maybe the goal of some people in the country, to have young people not want to engage with the process because it’s so difficult.”

Rick Li ’21 said his ballot was initially rejected by elections officials in Illinois after they raised a problem with his signature. He ultimately had to send in an affidavit attesting to the validity of the ballot.

“I feel like I’m a person who’s very much on top of it usually, and so it just made me really, really worried for vote-by-mail in general this election,” Li, a Crimson Arts editor, said.

Some problems required more creative solutions. When Bhushan A. Patel ’22 — whose home state of Pennsylvania was decided by a margin of less than 1 percent in the 2016 presidential election — received his absentee ballot, both the secrecy envelope and the return envelope were already sealed.

Unable to reach local officials to request a new ballot after several tries, Patel said he put the envelopes in the fridge overnight to weaken the glue, then worked them open. Others around the country have reported similar problems, including former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Y. Abrams during the state’s June presidential primary.

“We hear all the time that if you want to be heard as a young person, you should vote,” Harris said. “But there’s just such a significant amount of voters who are disenfranchised because the process is so difficult.”

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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