Saint Mary’s students, faculty reflect on issues related to voting
Gina Twardosz | Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Editor’s note: Throughout the 2018 midterm election season, The Observer sat down with various student organizations and professors to discuss political engagement and issues particularly pertinent to students. In this ninth installment, Saint Mary’s students discuss problems they have faced while trying to vote.
Leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, many Saint Mary’s students realized their names had been removed, or purged, off voter rolls in their home states. Some students discovered this fact just days before the election.
Political Science professor Patrick Pierce said one of his students and her entire family were purged from the voter rolls in St. Joseph County, Ind. Pierce said purging procedures vary on a state-by-state basis, and usually occur when a voter has not cast a ballot in recent elections.
“Typically, [voter purging] pertains to removing someone from the voter rolls if they haven’t voted for a certain number of elections,” he said. “There was a relatively recent ruling [by the Supreme Court] that, if you didn’t vote in an election or two, you could be purged from the rolls, but that varies by state.”
When a voter has failed to vote in recent elections, a confirmation notice is sent to the voter. If the voter does not respond to the notice in time, their name is purged from the role.
Junior Guadalupe Gonzalez, president of the Saint Mary’s Define American club, said many Saint Mary’s students discovered they were purged from the rolls after checking their registration status online or by calling their local representative.
“No warning was sent [but] thankfully, our students knew their right to a provisional ballot,” Gonzalez said. “But how many other people know about provisional ballots? This information and the process need to be more transparent.”
Gonzalez said she has helped Saint Mary’s students register to vote during past elections, so she has witnessed the difficulties that many have to face just to get registered.
“Every state has different policies, some more difficult than others,” she said. “We have students from Michigan who could not vote because Michigan demands first time voters vote in person — they cannot ask for an absentee ballot for their first time. Being a student compromises your ability to vote because you might not be able to take a day off to drive up.”
Junior Mary Stechschulte, a Michigan resident, said she was not able to vote during the 2016 presidential election despite having registered to vote well in advance. During her freshman year at Saint Mary’s, Stechschulte said she registered to vote at a campus event and then drove home to vote at her designated polling place.
But, when Stechschulte entered the polling place, she discovered she was not actually registered to vote.
“I walked into the polling station, and the lady checking IDs’ face dropped after looking up my name,” she said. “She said that I had not registered to vote. I was in shock; I had taken all of the necessary steps to be able to vote, even taking four hours from my busy college life to vote and the machine still said I had not registered.”
Stechschulte said she was devastated walking out of the polling station.
“I felt heartbroken,” she said. “I wanted to do my part for the election and vote for what I believed in.”
Stechschulte said she and her family did everything they could to get her registered — they even sent a letter to the Secretary of State — but the problem was discovered too late to allow Stechschulte to vote in the 2016 election.
When Stechschulte returned to campus, she said she discussed what had happened with her friends. She soon realized she was not the only student who did not get to vote in the election.
“After some more discussion with my friends, I realized that I was not the only college-aged student who mysteriously did not get registered to vote,” she said. “I did receive my registration confirmation from the Secretary of State a few days after the official numbers came back from my home state [of Michigan], but it was too late for me to vote.”
Junior Genesis Vasquez’s early voter registration was rejected two days before the midterm elections. She said she applied for an absentee ballot but never received it.
“Two days before the election, I got an email saying I would not get the ballot because my signature did not match and I may not be registered where I indicated on my application,” she said. “Which was a lie, because before I did the application, I updated my address.”
Like Stechschulte, Vasquez said the right to vote is not something she takes for granted.
“Voting is really important to me because my parents have had trouble becoming citizens and cannot vote,” she said. “I vote for them, and I vote to have good people in office that will make a positive change and do something new that will benefit the people.”
Despite never receiving an absentee ballot, Vasquez said she was able to return to her hometown of Chicago and cast her vote in the midterm elections. However, Vasquez said she feels it was not a fluke that her registration was rejected.
“I know I was not the only one who had a similar experience to this,” she said. “My friend and I said, ‘The system tried to not let us vote, but we were not going to let that happen.’ I was very fortunate that I am from Chicago and I could have gone to vote.”
Pierce said he also knew of students who have experienced trouble obtaining an absentee ballot. Pierce said these election administration issues have always been apparent, but they were more evident during the recent midterm elections because of the high level of turnout among young people.
“You’re seeing the problem amplified because turnout is higher,” he said. “You have more people who want to vote, so when the system isn’t operating effectively, you’ll have more evidence of that ineffectiveness. This was an extraordinary election for young people in terms of turnout and partisanship, because you saw them breaking for the Democrats far more strongly than young people ever have.”
Gonzalez said the midterm election and even the past presidential election raise the issue of voter suppression. She said she feels that most Americans do not see voter suppression as “a real issue.”
People will look for obvious intent behind acts of voter suppression, but Pierce said voter suppression often occurs because of structural issues.
“Counties have gotten used to getting by with what they have — they have increasingly faced tough fiscal situations, so they’re looking for areas to cut,” he said. “That gets manifested in reducing the number of polling places and having fewer staff within the county offices. You will find those issues affecting counties with poorer citizens.”
This kind of voter suppression can manifest itself as long lines for the polls, shortened deadlines for early voting and malfunctioning voting equipment, Pierce said.
Often, Gonzalez said, voter suppression occurs in underrepresented or marginalized communities and many Americans do not hear about the issues that plague these communities. For example, in the midterm election, some polling places opened late, disrupting people’s work schedules and daily lives.
“We’ve heard how some polling places were not open until noon, and if they were open, there were only three machines and a waiting period of hours to just vote,” Gonzalez said. “When you are an individual that depends on that paycheck, it takes a real effort to take even 30 minutes out of a work day to vote.”
Pierce said that the public should pay more attention to acts of voter suppression, with a focus on voting purges and Voter ID laws.
“Voter suppression is certainly something that’s out there and you can witness it most easily in the purges and Voter ID laws — those are probably the two egregious examples of voter suppression,” he said.
Pierce said civic engagement has seen a shift in concern, from a worries about increasing voter turnout to a concerns about the “false issue of voter fraud.”
The concept of voter fraud was referenced by President Trump in early 2017, who established a presidential commission to study alleged voter fraud.
“There is simply no evidence of any significant and meaningful voter fraud going on,” Pierce said. “You’ve distracted people and redefined the issue so that it’s not longer about a democracy and engaging everyone to participate in the process.”
Pierce said Americans should be more concerned about Voter ID laws than voter fraud.
“Voter ID laws are really important and awful,” he said. “They’re new, so there’s not much political science literature on the topic, but the most important work, which was done by a couple of folks who are at [University of California at] San Diego, found that Voter ID laws significantly reduced turnout among folks of color and folks who were liberal.”
Gonzalez said news about voter suppression should move people to action. Some of the ways to prevent voter suppression, she said, include educating ourselves on the history of voting rights in America, engaging in conversations about voting rights and volunteering to help register people to vote.
“Research who is running and pay attention to their campaigns,” she said. “It is also so rewarding to be part of elections by volunteering. I cannot vote, but I still consider myself American and I understand my civic duty as raising awareness and encouraging participation. I find volunteering in this way does work as a catalyst.”
Part of this awareness involves encouraging and teaching students to follow up on their registration, Gonzalez said.
“We could set up times where we tell students, ‘it’s time to call your polling place,’ just to be completely sure,” she said. “And again, we just need to really work on preparing students for what to do if [their vote] has been rejected.”
Gonzalez said every American should have the opportunity to vote in every election.
“How can we call ourselves a democracy, an exemplary one at that, if there is no equity in access so every citizen can vote and guarantee that every vote will be counted,” she said.