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Students struggle to register, request absentee ballots

Timeline poses barrier for students hoping to vote in Democratic primaries

Metro Editor
Tuesday, February 25, 2020

As the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries continue, students attempting to request absentee ballots may already be too late, said Steve Pokorny, a program manager at the Swearer Center for Public Service.

Pokorny said multiple students have contacted him to get more information about registering to vote and obtaining their absentee ballots before the bulk of the Democratic primaries take place in March. But often, students do not realize that they have to register to vote 30 days in advance of election day. “I sat here recently with someone from North Carolina who missed it by three days,” Pokorny said.

In addition, the deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is usually at least a week before election day, making the process of preparing to vote from afar even more difficult.

According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement by Tufts University, 78.5 percent of Brown students were registered to vote for the 2018 midterm elections, but only 45.1 percent actually voted. Of those who voted, only 30.2 percent managed to vote absentee.

“I think the biggest barrier for students often is the timeline, because we expect things to go quickly and, unfortunately, they don’t,” Pokorny said. “I don’t know if (the process) is designed to obstruct, but it can have that effect for students.”

Isabel Reyes ’21 hopes to see more resources on campus for student voters. “My dad came to the U.S. forty years ago and still doesn’t completely understand how to vote here,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. “I think more educational practices on this topic are useful, especially for UFLi students and those from less politically-active backgrounds, as they may have not had this kind of discourse in the past.”

Among existing campus resources, the University hosts partnership with a website called TurboVote, which Pokorny said is a valuable resource for student voters. Students who register with TurboVote will be able to register to vote in any state, and “once you’ve done that, they will give you notifications when it’s time to request your absentee ballot.”

Additionally, in collaboration with the University Library, the Swearer Center has recently launched a LibGuide portal that can also facilitate the voting process for students by providing voting guides and deadlines.

Madison Mandell ’22, a leader of the Voter Education Team within Brown College Democrats, said that the team will be partnering with caucuses within Brown College Democrats to “make sure everyone is aware of the information, knows the dates (and) knows the process.”

Mandell also said that in her experience, the timeline is a significant obstacle to student voters. “So many people don’t really put their money where their mouth is in terms of voting,” she said. “It’s just so hard in the life of a Brown student to find time to actually go get your ballot, request it and send it, but it’s so important.”

Students like Natalie Fredman ’21, Adam Stein ’21 and Reyes have been struggling with these time limitations and other issues in the process of registering to vote and obtaining their absentee ballots.

Fredman, who is from Florida, first experienced issues receiving her absentee ballot with the 2018 midterm elections: Her ballot came with the wrong middle name and was sent to the wrong county.

This year, Fredman attempted to change her address online to receive her absentee ballot at the University, but was told she had to sign an affidavit in Florida to confirm her address change. “That defeats the purpose of an absentee ballot,” she said. “Especially given that Florida is a swing state and young people, especially college students, tend to vote Democrat. To me, this seems like something that’s purposefully making it hard for out-of-state students to vote.”

Studying abroad comes with additional barriers to voting, which Stein discovered while abroad in Israel this semester. “When you’re in a foreign country, something that small can be hard — just things like finding a printer, getting stamps, going to the post office and dealing with all that in a foreign language,” he said.

Pokorny noted that especially for students studying abroad, the best method for voting absentee is to plan ahead. “If you’re registered in advance it’s not quite as bad. … I would encourage people to register now,” he said.

Reyes, who is studying abroad in Thailand, is facing difficulties in the process of registering to vote in New York this semester. “I think the registration process discourages a lot of people,” Reyes wrote in an email to The Herald. “I know some middle-aged people who haven’t voted in twenty years. I feel lucky to study and live in regions that historically vote the same way that I would, but I’d be pretty anxious if that wasn’t the case.”

Despite the current difficulties experienced by students, “I think of the primaries as an opportunity to get our systems in place for the fall,” Pokorny said, encouraging students to register now to prepare for the 2020 presidential election. “People who vote now will be more active voters for the rest of their lives.”

For a full list of absentee ballot deadlines by state, visit

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