The Disenfranchisement of the Student Class in the 2022 Midterm Elections
Voter suppression has been rampant throughout the history of the United States, but one of the most overlooked and overshadowed cases pertains to the youngest voters in our democracy: 18-26 year-olds.
This demographic historically has less than 25% of eligible voters registered, and, according to Census.gov, in the 2020 election had the lowest percentage turnout of registered voters “among those ages 18 to 24 at 51.4%.” Voting by mail poses a threat to the institution of the Republican, rural, Southern states because of the student population. Students actively pursuing higher education are more likely to vote and are additionally much more likely to vote left-leaning. However, even in-state students are very rarely going to school anywhere within 30 miles of their home county, where they are likely registered to vote. Furthermore, out-of-state students often want to keep their voter registration in their home county/state rather than switching to their University address for a multitude of factors. So, these students are turning to voting by mail – it is more convenient, cheaper, (a stamp costs less than plane ticket or driving home), and seemingly just as trustworthy that their vote will count. However, the number of students who were unable to receive their absentee ballots indicates intentional disenfranchisement.
This chronic disenfranchisement of the student population in the United States is causing a gross misrepresentation of the youngest generation of voters in our country. Elected officials weren’t elected by nor answer to those who were unable to vote, and this class of students is being stripped of their constitutionally given right. It remains to be seen whether these issues from the 2022 midterm elections will be redressed at the federal or state levesl, but in the meantime, resources exist to help navigate the current system. The EAC has resources for local and state elections offices for the implementation of more effective absentee voting systems, along with election education and outreach program information. Resources available to students include local elections offices, findable via their county website and the ACLU local office. Other nonprofits include Bolder Advocacy for nation-wide advocacy, and organizations like LoudLight in Kansas for the local fight against disenfranchisement. Furthermore, if these issues persist, it will likely be up to universities themselves and their political advocacy student organizations – like UChicago’s own UChiVotes – to develop further resources to make voting accessible to all students, particularly those attempting to vote by mail.
Students at the University of Chicago have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with the vote-by-mail process. Many spoke about how their experiences voting in the 2022 midterm elections – everything from not receiving their ballots at all to receiving them too close to Election Day to feel sure their ballot would arrive on time to receiving them after Election day – left them feeling disenfranchised within the system.
Javier Rodriguez, a second-year student in the College from Texas, says, “Voter suppression for out-of-state students is rampant. Despite having called my county on a nearly daily basis for the two weeks [leading up to the election], it wasn’t until Saturday (11/5) that I received my mail-in ballot. My only option was “Priority Express Delivery” with USPS to ensure that my ballot would arrive on time and be counted. As a first-generation low-income student, the $27.90 fee places a toll on my savings and disadvantages me over my affluent peers. The economic toll to express my right to vote clearly shows that elections must be reformed in Texas and in the USA.” Rodriguez points to the disparate effects of voting by mail for low-income students. With nearly 60% of students receiving financial support from the university, this incurred cost can be burdensome for low-income students and is an unexpected expense of attending school out of state.
A second-year student from Florida had a similar issue. His requested ballot took more than seven days to arrive at his dorm mailbox. It was on day 14 that he gave checking his mailbox one last chance and sure enough, his ballot was there. Due to the fact that he received his ballot on Friday (11/4), he felt obligated to utilize the “Priority Express Delivery” offered by USPS and also took on the $27.90 fee to be able to execute his civic duty of electoral participation. He and Rodriguez were part of the minority of students who experienced difficulty receiving their ballots. But they were still lucky enough to cast their votes at all.
This brings up another roadblock to students trying to vote: UChicago’s Housing & Residence Life system and its mail delivery policies. First and second-year students in the College are required to live in on-campus housing due to university policy. Additionally, many third and fourth years elect to live on campus for a variety of financial reasons, such as financial aid policies that make on-campus housing more affordable. However, according to a mailroom employee at Woodlawn Residential Commons, the mail delivery process can take upwards of three days from the time a letter is delivered to the building prior to being placed into a student’s individual mailbox due to processing by the mail staff. This three-day delay to receiving ballots could have been the difference between receiving a ballot with enough time to mail it back unencumbered and having to pay for expedited shipping.
Gabe Kertesz, a second-year student in the College from Birmingham, Alabama, shared that he didn’t receive his mail-in ballot at all. He also shared that every Alabaman he knew at the University also did not receive a ballot. He had requested on the first day it became available in his state, called regularly after a week had gone by after the mail-out date set by the Alabama Secretary of State’s office passed, and even contacted his county clerk directly. “I was quite frustrated to not get my mail-in ballot this election,” Kertesz said. “In Alabama, you have to send a paper request for an absentee ballot through the mail, so I knew it would probably take quite a while for my ballot to arrive in Chicago. My request would have to get to Birmingham, be processed, my ballot would have to arrive here, and then I would have to get it back to Birmingham all before Election Day. I requested my ballot weeks in advance and even still, it got here a week after Election Day. I even tried to track how long a letter took to get from Chicago to Birmingham last year and verified that I would indeed have enough time for my vote to be counted, but that didn’t happen. I wasn’t really even surprised, just angry and disappointed.”
A frustrated third-year student in the College from Arizona reached out on Election Day asking what to do if she simply never received her ballot after weeks of requests, contact with her county elections office, and even a call to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office. “I even set my absentee address as my home in Arizona to reduce the chances of not getting my ballot, and even then my state didn’t send me my ballot.” She was instructed to call 1-800-OUR-VOTE and to contact her local ACLU on election day since she was unable to cast her vote – which is what every disenfranchised individual is encouraged to do if they also never received their ballot or were turned away over any issue without a provisional, according to the ACLU national office.
A second-year student in the College from Texas shared similar experiences: “I am a registered vote-by-mail voter in Harris County, Texas, but I was unable to vote in the November General election because my ballot arrived after the day of the election. I successfully registered on October 13, 2022. According to the HarrisVotes mail ballot tracker, my ballot was sent out October 18. By October 26, I still had not received my ballot, even though over seven days had passed. I called the Harris Elections office number for vote-by-mail and the person recommended I request my ballot be reissued so that I would receive it in time to mail it. This was October 26, 2022. I was informed that by requesting a new ballot, I could no longer use the first ballot sent because it would be considered null and void. However, I was still advised to request a new ballot. I then sent the ballot reissue request. According to the mail ballot tracking website, my request was processed and accepted on October 27, and my reissued ballot was sent November 1. Unfortunately, I did not receive my ballot in my mail before Election Day. I had called the Harris County number multiple times as well as checked the Harris County website periodically, and both resources stated that the mail-in ballot should take no more than seven days to arrive in my mailbox from the sent date. I am profoundly disappointed that I was unable to engage in my civic right, and even more disappointed to hear that I am not the only college student from Harris County who did not receive their ballot in time.”
One student, a third-year in the College from DuPage County, Illinois, reached out on Election Day and inquired about having not yet received his mail-in ballot. This student had never had a problem or heard of another student with any issues receiving ballots and easy access to voting in Illinois before, so he genuinely believes that it must have been lost in the mail. Luckily, because of Illinois’ same-day voter registration laws, this student was able to register in Cook County to be able to vote on campus at UChicago, but was disappointed to not have been able to vote in his county’s local elections.
The United States government not addressed the massive number of unreceived absentee ballots and myriad of disenfranchised citizens this election cycle, unlike in 2020 when the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) released a “Lessons Learned” document about the 2020 primaries and issues pertaining to Covid-19 and absentee voting. Due to this absence of action this election cycle, many southern states, from which many citizens were unable to vote by mail due to the issues highlighted, are not being held accountable by the federal government, and thus continue to create laws that are not necessarily in the best interest of voter protection. These laws were exemplified in Kertesz’s description of his situation attempting to receive his ballot from Alabama. Even if Kertesz had received his ballot on time, he would have had to get his ballot notarized before mailing it back home. Alabama is one of just seven states which enforce such requirements.
The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license. The original image was published by the Los Angeles Times and can be found here.