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Students travel home to vote in person despite COVID-19 risk

Students voting at home cite convenience, concerns about mail-in voting

Bryce Blinn ’21, a registered Democrat, knows that his vote in the presidential election is crucial in his home state of Texas, which the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates as a toss-up. So, to make sure his vote was counted, he took matters into his own hands.

Blinn boarded a plane Oct. 27 so that he could vote in person in his hometown of Dallas. Two days later, Blinn had returned to his Providence apartment with his vote cast and nearly 3,500 miles of travel under his belt.

Blinn is not the only student traveling home to vote in person this presidential election, despite recommendations from the University and the risk of COVID-19. Some students who spoke to The Herald cited concerns about mail-in voting, while others felt that an in-person vote was simply more convenient.

Faculty voted on Sept. 8 to make Election Day an official University holiday to ensure community members have the chance to vote, The Herald previously reported.

University travel restrictions

Still, University leadership is discouraging students from traveling out of state to vote in line with current travel restrictions, Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 told The Herald.

“It’s challenging because, of course, we describe voting as an essential activity and we want people to be able to vote,” Carey said. 

If students plan to leave Rhode Island to vote, they “should be in touch with Campus Life and Student Support Services first,” Carey said.

But with only four days before Election Day, Carey said he hopes that most students have already voted by mail. 

For students registered to vote in the Ocean State, “travel obviously within the city to (vote) is safe, as long as people wear a mask and practice social distancing,” Carey added. 

While the University urges against out-of-state travel, multiple students said they felt that the election took precedence over concerns about COVID-19.

“I thought voting was more important” than adhering to guidelines, Blinn said. 

Student concerns about mail-in voting

Blinn had doubts about Texas’ absentee voting system. He said that one friend sent in her absentee ballot and never received confirmation that it was counted, while Blinn’s sister applied for a mail-in ballot but did not receive it in time to cast her vote by mail. 

In addition to his concerns with voting in Texas, Blinn worried about the mail system itself. Reports of slowed mail delivery times eroded his confidence in the U.S. Postal Service.

“I don’t really trust the U.S. mail system, especially how it is right now,” Blinn said. He decided that flying back home was a safer bet to get his vote counted. 

Alisa Caira ’22, whose hometown of Newton, Mass. is a 50-minute drive away from campus, said that she will vote in person on Election Day rather than by mail.

“Voting by mail is a super valuable way to vote,” Caira said. “But I'm just a bit nervous about it.” 

“I just want to do everything I can to make sure my vote counts,” Caira said. “This is such a pivotal election.” Caira said she believes that a second term for Trump will be permanently damaging to the country and the world.

Caira voted in the Sept. 1 Massachusetts primaries in person and said that the process felt safe. Everyone in line to vote was spaced out and wearing masks, she said, so she was confident that voting in person again wouldn’t be too risky. She plans to get tested for COVID-19 before and after she votes.

One Brown student, who requested anonymity out of fear of personal repercussions, plans to drive home to New York to vote early on Friday. The student said that she was concerned that her vote by mail would not be counted. “I just got very worried that something would get messed up and be out of my control,” she said.

While she sent in an absentee ballot for the June primaries, the weight of the upcoming election makes voting in person imperative for her. “There’s just so much on the line,” she added. 

‘How you vote is your business’

Betsy Shimberg, interim director of the Swearer Center for Public Service, told The Herald that the most important thing is that people vote, regardless of the method. 

“How you vote is your business,” Shimberg said. “But that you participate as an adult with this cherished civic responsibility — that's something that I will ask humbly that people participate in.” 

Shimberg added that while she is sympathetic to students’ concerns about voting by mail, if a ballot is sent with enough time before Election Day, it is almost certain to be counted. “If we do this early, we can trust the system,” she said. She also emphasized that voting by mail comes with the least amount of risk from COVID-19.

“I want students to stay safe and to use the mail for this,” Shimberg said. “We're doing a great job keeping people safe right now (from COVID-19), and we want to keep that up.”

According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement at Tufts University, nearly 46 percent of Brown students voted by mail in 2016 and 54 percent in 2018

Madison Mandell ’22, co-founder of Brown Votes, a Swearer Center student group that advocates for voter registration and civic engagement, told The Herald that mail ballots are still a secure method of voting. 

“There's always going to be a little more risk if you are mailing instead of (voting) directly, but that risk, in my opinion, is very, very low,” Mandell said.

Though Brown Votes does not recommend a particular method of voting to students, Mandell emphasized that all students should make a voting plan — including where and when they will vote. 

Students vote from home near College Hill 

For some students, traveling home to vote was the most convenient option. 

Nora Ong ’23 will cast her vote on Election Day in her hometown, North Kingstown, R.I., an approximately 30-minute drive from campus. 

For Ong, voting in person is “more streamlined” and avoids potential technicalities that could invalidate a mail-in ballot. 

While she filled out an absentee ballot for the primaries, she ended up placing it in a ballot drop box location in North Kingstown instead of mailing it. Mail-in voting “feels less real than actually going in and voting in person,” Ong said. 

Given North Kingstown’s relatively small population and numerous polling stations, Ong said she feels that it is unlikely that she will come into contact with many other voters. 

For Sloane Carlisle Kratzman ’22, the 80-minute ferry ride to her home in East Hampton, N.Y. was easier than waiting for an absentee ballot to arrive. Carlisle Kratzman requested her absentee ballot Sept. 23, but when it still hadn’t shown up with two weeks left before Election Day, she opted for an in-person vote.

After leaving Providence in the early morning of Oct. 28, Carlisle Kratzman cast her ballot in person and was back in Rhode Island the same day. 

Carlisle Kratzman, who has two immunocompromised family members, said she avoided any unnecessary contact with people and followed safe protocol while waiting in line to vote. She was tested every day leading up to her trip. 

Even with the risk of COVID-19, Carlisle Kratzman felt that voting was important — and others seemed to feel the same: Carlisle Kratzman said that a 95-year-old woman cast her ballot while Carlisle Kratzman waited to vote. 

“It’s kind of incredible to see the sheer amount of voter turnout,” Carlisle Kratzman said.

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