This past weekend Joseph R. Biden was announced the President-elect of the United States, with Kamala Harris at his side as the Vice President-elect. This was a great victory against Donald Trump and his harmful rhetoric and policies. It was not, however, an easy win. Political junkies like myself will recall watching Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia inch towards flipping blue as new batches of mail-in votes were counted. Meanwhile, the President attacked the validity of these mail-in votes on Twitter, claiming that “tens of thousands of votes were illegally received after 8 P.M. on Tuesday, Election Day” in PA, a claim that, might I add, Twitter censored due to its “misleading nature.” As I watched this battle over absentee ballots ensue, I couldn’t help but think of the students of Boston College and of college voters in general.
In order to vote as college students, we must choose between absentee voting in our home state or registering in Chestnut Hill. Due to the electoral college system, where we vote directly affects the impact that our vote has in the election, so voting as a Massachusetts resident isn’t always favorable. Thus, many students choose to vote absentee.
We all know the drill. Print your absentee request and fill it out. Scramble to find a friend who has a stamp. Mail your request. Wait patiently, then impatiently as the deadline draws nearer, to receive your ballot in the mail. When it finally arrives, you bubble in your choices, place the ballot inside of an envelope inside of another envelope, and then send it on its way. It’s a lengthy process, but we endure it to make sure our vote is counted and our voices are heard.
This year’s election, however, came with a new set of challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions and fears. Many states expanded their absentee ballot systems to allow Covid concerns as a reason to vote by mail. As of Oct. 21, just short of two weeks from the election, 30.2 million absentee ballots had already been returned. In comparison, on Oct. 21, 2016, only four million votes had been cast. This sudden influx of new absentee voters put pressure on an already strained system and exposed a lot of flaws in voting absentee. Issues such as mismatching or missing signatures result in a ballot not being counted, a problem that popped up almost immediately in states with early voting. In the state of North Carolina, for instance, absentee ballots had a rejection rate of nearly 2% altogether, and an even higher rate of 7% for black voters. Clearly, this is not a perfect system, and its flaws have only been exacerbated by the unique circumstances of this year’s election.
While most voters will soon return to in-person voting and file their experience with absentee voting away as another crazy part of the disaster that is 2020, college students do not have this escape. We have relied on mail-in voting as a trustworthy system, assuming that once our ballot is in the mail, we don’t have to worry about it anymore. This year’s mail-in fiasco proves that that is not always the case, and calls into question the reliability of a process for which college students have no alternative.
I believe it is time we take a closer look at how our votes are counted. Young voters may prove to be one of the most influential blocs in future elections; millennials and Gen Z together recently surpassed the baby boomers in number of eligible voters. However, this is dependent on whether or not we actually vote—and if those votes are counted. The problems plaguing the absentee ballot system this year play a huge role in the way that student votes are counted. In a Knight Foundation study, 71% of college students said they were “absolutely certain” they would vote this year, and about half of those students planned to use an absentee ballot to do so. This means that about half of student votes ran the risk of not being counted due to small paperwork errors.
In a nation that puts a heavy emphasis on voting as our way to participate in democracy, it is completely unacceptable that college students do not have a reliable system of voting. Some may argue that this is an exceptional year and absentee voting will become trustworthy again when fewer people are relying on it, but what they fail to acknowledge is that these problems have existed for years. The signature rule, for example, is not a new one, it has just come into the public eye recently due to the increased number of absentee voters.
It is time for a complete overhaul of the college voting system. Absentee voting is simply not reliable enough when such a large portion of Americans need it. One option often mentioned is early voting while students are home for summer break, but this requires that students have decided who they will vote for three months before an election. Instead, I would argue that in-person voting should be an option for out-of-state voters.
Separate, on campus voting sites can be set up for out-of-state students on Election Day, which should be a University-mandated day off for students, professors, and staff members. Those ballots should be counted in-state and their results should be sent back to students’ home states. I admit this is not a flawless system, especially when local elections come into play. However, in the current system, students are being treated as second-class citizens because they have chosen to pursue higher education away from home. It is imperative that each and every American citizen has an equal opportunity to make their voice heard with their vote, and that has to include students, too.