With heavy political polarization present in the United States during the 2020 election, first time voters contributed to one of the highest voter turnouts since the early 1900s despite the coronavirus pandemic. According to Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, young and first-time voters ranked higher in every state since 2016.
The Daily Trojan interviewed two USC students and an alumna to talk about their first-time voter experiences and casting their vote during the coronavirus pandemic.
Applying for her absentee ballot months in advance, Emily Drysdale did not think she would need to fly back to Fort Collins, Colo. to cast her ballot. But as a first-time voter in a presidential election, Drysdale was determined to make sure her voice was heard, and she worried ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted.
“I was nervous from the start because of who’s in charge of USPS and nervous that corruption could affect my ability to vote,” said Drysdale, a sophomore majoring in computational neuroscience. “I don’t really feel reassured by my experience. I think, if anything, I’m more nervous. I had to go to pretty extreme measures to make sure I could vote.”
Drysdale, like many college students and young people across the country, voted for the first time during this historic election, one defined by divisiveness and confusion amid the coronavirus pandemic.
By the last week in October, Drysdale still had not received her absentee ballot nearly three weeks after it was first mailed, so she went to the post office in hopes of finding it. There, workers found her address had been marked as invalid because it included a fraction, an issue some of her neighbors may have faced, as well. On top of that, she noticed many ballots arriving at her housing near campus were meant for other addresses, meaning some people could have missed their ballots.
When she received her ballot and tried to send it to her parents to place in a drop box, it didn’t arrive in time.
“My mom ended up calling about it … and they told her it was lost, and so she booked me a ticket to come back home to vote,” Drysdale said.
Her ballot ended up arriving at her parents’ house, where she dropped it in one of the boxes with little wait.
Following this experience, Drysdale also realized the obstacles that may stand in the way of people’s ability to cast their ballot.
“I know a lot of people do not have the luxury to pay $80 for a plane ticket to fly back home to vote, so I’m definitely concerned that some people’s votes will not be counted or their voices will not be heard because of how difficult the process is,” she said.
Although Drysdale managed to cast her vote on time, she is unhappy with the lengths she had to go through to have her voice heard.
“I think because we are in a pandemic, we are sort of at the mercy of this system,” Drysdale said. “I feel like I had to risk infecting my parents and my family with COVID by flying back [home]. Because there was that sort of barrier, I had to rely on the Postal Service and government entities to participate, which is sort of unfortunate … I’m lucky I have parents who are committed and very happy to fly me home and potentially risk infection so that I can have a voice in politics.”
Voting for the first time was a family affair for Nicole Antounian, a junior majoring in journalism, as she always anticipated the moment that she could vote. Antounian cast her ballot in person for the first time this year along with her family in Burbank, Calif.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to vote. I did not wait a single second [longer],” Antounian said. “Your voice matters. My voice matters, and even if it’s just one vote, that’s better than no voting. I don’t want to just sit there during the election tonight and dread not voting. I don’t want to have any regrets. I did my part.”
Antounian was able to vote in person at her high school, where she had registered to vote a few years earlier during one of her government classes.
Prior to voting, Antounian decided on proposition measures alongside a guide she created as part of one of her journalism classes.
“Especially with what’s been going on, with social injustices that happened this past summer, like the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID and all this stuff, the candidates both have very polarizing views,” Antounian said.
When her mother shared stories about voting, Antounian said it sounded like a fun outing with friends where they cast their votes and went out to eat after. Now, Antounian said the country feels too polarized to do so.
During the 2010 midterm elections, then-freshman Rayven Vinson from Baltimore faced different challenges as a first-time voter when she said she was turned away from a polling location in Marks Tower.
Encouraged by campus efforts to register students to vote, including a campus visit from former President Barack Obama, Vinson was encouraged to make plans to cast her ballot and even waited in the long lines at the DMV location near USC to obtain a driver’s license to register to vote in California.
Registered to vote as a California resident, Vinson entered the polling location in the residential apartments with plans to cast her ballot. However, she said she was unable to vote after a residential assistant helping at the location told Vinson she would be unable to vote due to her differing residential and local address.
“It was disappointing and I remember, thinking back all these years later, about how much I wish the school would have walked [me] through it,” Vinson said. “The RAs tried their best but they’re also 19, 20, 21 years old, —they may have voted only once or twice before themselves. So it was this combination of feeling like I didn’t have the proper resources, my RA didn’t know, the school was making a big deal but wasn’t really involved.”
Nearly 10 years later, and with a wide range of experience as a special assistant in the United States Senate and work in the Bipartisan Policy Center, Vinson prepared months in advance for this election, casting her vote on the first day of early voting in Maryland after waiting in line for an hour and a half starting at 7 a.m.
Although she did not end up fulfilling the role due to changing needs of the voting center, Vinson also signed up to volunteer as an election judge at her polling location to help take the role of older Black women who would be at greater risk for the coronavirus. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of poll workers in 2018 were older than 61.
During her time at USC, Vinson also recalled the general disconnect USC and its students had with the surrounding South Central community that also impacted whether they would be voting in elections. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 54% of South Central households make less than $50,000, with close to 27% of the residents below the poverty line.
“At USC, unfortunately there is a lot of classism and elitism. Students tend to unfortunately not see themselves as part of the neighborhood, as part of the surrounding community. There does not seem to be an investment by the students to make sure that they are making their communities better,” Vinson said. “So when you don’t see yourself as [part of the community], why would you learn about ballot issues, learn who your city councilperson is … why would you take the time to vote given that situation?”
Now that she’s out of college and feels more connected with her surrounding communities, Vinson said she has prioritized voting, and would vote despite her district being overwhelmingly blue and also identifying as a liberal.
“I think when you live somewhere and you feel part of a community, it makes a big difference versus if you were at USC and kind of lollygagging and you feel like you’re part of the school, but you don’t feel like you’re a part of 90007,” Vinson said.
Vinson also said that for voters who have more familiarity with the voting process, many do not understand the difficulties others may face with voter registration, long wait times at polls and removal from voting rolls.
“Having experienced what I did at USC, I realized how many details really that you have to keep track and if you don’t it could allow you to slip through the cracks,” Vinson said. “Even though my experience was, not minor, but it wasn’t like I was aggressively turned away or what have you, it just opens your eyes to the fact that it is possible and it’s not people that are stupid that are being left off but it’s just innocent, everyday Americans who are just trying to do their civic duty and because of a mistake or misunderstanding, they’re not able to.”
For future elections, Vinson said USC should lean into the idea of global citizens and encourage students to vote during all off-year elections and provide information on international elections, as well. Vinson said the University should help students navigate elections as many are first-time voters.
“Trust them that they can vote for whomever or on whatever, but I think it behooves them to at least get them all the way up to the polling location,” Vinson said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Nicole Antounian voted using a dropbox, but she voted in person. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.