The Complicated Road to Election Day

BergVotes faced unprecedented challenges as it endeavored to ensure as many students as possible, on campus and off, could cast a vote this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By: Meghan Kita  Tuesday, November 3, 2020 09:04 AM

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In February, a group of Muhlenberg students, faculty and staff attended the inaugural Eastern Pennsylvania Student Voting Summit in Philadelphia. The group included the executive board and advisors of BergVotes, an award-winning nonpartisan student organization focused on increasing voter registration and turnout. 

Out of the summit came a strategic plan to ensure more students than ever would participate in today’s election. BergVotes members were going to distribute voter registration applications in the first-year residence halls. They planned to spread out in Wood Dining Commons, helping fellow students register to vote as they enjoyed their Pizza Rustica. They intended to enlist Marti the Mule in their efforts, hoping that smiling face and endless enthusiasm could inspire new heights of political engagement.

“We practically had to throw out the whole plan,” says Kyle Ropski ’22 (pictured), an economics and sustainability studies double major who’s president of BergVotes. “This fall became more of a semester designed to make sure that everybody was registered to vote in whichever way was most convenient to them in their situation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic made even this seemingly simple goal extremely complicated. It divided the Muhlenberg community into two cohorts: the first-year students and the few upperclassmen permitted to live on campus, and everyone else. It created an unprecedented demand for new-to-Pennsylvania mail-in ballots, which differ from the previously offered absentee ballots in that voters don’t need to provide a reason to request one. It even threw the use of Seegers Union as a polling place into question until early September, when senior staff approved the safety measures proposed to protect voters and the campus community. 

Still, the confusion and additional workload comes with a great reward—helping students, on campus and off, ensure their votes are counted: “For almost all current students, this is their first presidential election,” says Cydney Wilson ’23, a political science major and women’s & gender studies minor who’s vice president of BergVotes. “It’s a big deal.”

A New Plan Takes Shape

Over the summer, Beth Halpern, director of community engagement and advisor for BergVotes, reached out to her contacts at the Lehigh County Voter Office to ask for their advice. The College had decided to invite first-year students and a small group of upperclassmen to live on campus, but whether they would remain on campus through Election Day was uncertain. Any individual student could be sent home for violating safety protocols, while a major COVID-19 outbreak could necessitate sending everyone home. 

Given the circumstances, the county recommended that students registering to vote on campus also apply for a mail-in ballot. If a student needed to leave, they could contact the county to ask to switch their mail-in ballot to an absentee ballot. (Lehigh County sends mail-in ballots to only in-county addresses, while absentee ballots can be sent to other counties or out of state if the voter can explain their absence.)

This meant two forms for new voters instead of one: the voter registration form as well as the mail-in ballot application form. BergVotes’ usual strategy, to register as many first-year students as possible during orientation and the fall involvement fair, was not an option, since both events were held almost entirely virtually. While Pennsylvania allows voters to register online, the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) doesn’t recommend it except for students from Pennsylvania who have an in-state ID (which means the state has their signature on file). Anyone who only e-signs to register will later receive a verification letter they need to sign and return, creating an extra step that can theoretically be avoided by mailing in a paper registration form in the first place.

To support as many students as possible, BergVotes and the OCE tabled in Seegers every Monday and Wednesday throughout the month of September as well as on Tuesday, September 22, for National Voter Registration Day. They offered voter registration forms as well as mail-in ballot applications. Halpern and Wilson (pictured), who was approved to live on campus this semester, spent lots of time at those tables.

“People got to know us by the time we were done,” Wilson says. “They’d recognize me all over campus and ask me questions because I was there so much.”

COVID-19 protocols complicated these efforts, too. To accommodate social distancing, only one would-be voter could be at the table filling out the forms at a time. To avoid contamination, students were largely required to provide their own pens; if someone had to go find one, they didn’t always return. Still, it seemed that more students than usual said they were already registered to vote, and the team added 26 voters on National Voter Registration Day alone.

Troubleshooting Hiccups

Helping on-campus students fill out and send in their forms was step one. Helping them navigate the challenges that followed came next—and there were a lot of challenges, Halpern says.

For example, if a student mailed both forms at the same time, the Lehigh County Voter Office might process the mail-in ballot application first, and because the student was not yet registered to vote, their ballot application might be denied. Some students who registered using paper forms were still asked to complete signature verification letters for reasons that continue to be unclear. Some applications were rejected for illegibility.

A month or so of helping students with these kinds of problems culminated in Halpern taking a group to the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown on Monday, October 19, the last day to register to vote in Pennsylvania, so they could work out issues in person. Her final trip downtown that day (out of four or five) was a close one—she left campus at 3:44 p.m. with a student’s signed verification letter and handed it in just before the office closed at 4.

Pennsylvania voters had another week, until Tuesday, October 27, to request a mail-in or absentee ballot, but some students who requested much earlier still hadn’t received theirs in the mail weeks after the ballots were sent out. (Voters who apply for but don’t receive mail-in or absentee ballots can vote by provisional ballot on Election Day, and the county from which the voter requested the missing ballot needs to verify it didn’t receive that voter’s vote by mail before the provisional ballot is counted.)

Halpern applied for her own mail-in ballot in person and returned it on site, which is permitted in Lehigh County but not all counties. The process took about an hour. When students would ask her about that option, she told them, “That could be shorter than the lines on Election Day. It’s hard to say. Make a plan whenever you have the time.”

Rachelle Montilus ’24, Yael Beer ’24 and Carlie Nieman ’23 on National Voter Registration Day

Off-Campus Support

A lot has felt up in the air this election, which has made it hard for Halpern, Ropski, Wilson and other members of BergVotes to offer definitive answers, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been trying: “We want to make sure the students at home are participating just as much as the students on campus, and that no one is at a disadvantage,” Wilson says.

BergVotes has coordinated virtual support for students throughout the semester, including drop-in Zoom rooms and an open direct-message policy on the group’s social media accounts. BergVotes was fielding several questions each day via Instagram alone throughout September and October, a testament to how much the group has grown its social media presence this fall—one of the goals the group set in February that it was actually able to achieve.

Becoming more active on social media “was on the table, but it just took a lot stronger hold when the circumstances hit,” Ropski says. “It’s the best way to get resources out.”

The most common questions from students living off campus have involved absentee ballots. State law says that any adult citizen who has lived in Pennsylvania for at least 30 days and who plans to return is eligible. This means that today’s sophomores, juniors and seniors who were sent home in March and who intend to return to campus as soon as the College allows can vote absentee in Lehigh County.

That said, absentee ballots come with similar challenges to mail-in ballots—namely, voters need to receive them with enough time to send them back. The best BergVotes was able to offer to off-campus students who hadn’t received their ballots or weren’t sure whether they were applying or mailing too late was the phone number for the Lehigh County Voter Office.

“Our biggest difficulty has been trying to get the facts straight and figure out exactly what’s going to happen,” Ropski says.

Veda Bridgelal ’24, Rose Gilbert ’24 and AnnaMaria Fernandez ’24 on National Voter Registration Day

Election Day and Beyond

BergVotes’ priority this semester has been ensuring students, wherever they are, are able to cast a vote. Usually, the group would also plan issues-related outreach; for example, in 2018, it co-sponsored a Meet the Ticket event that brought local candidates to campus. No one had the bandwidth to organize anything like that this fall, Wilson says: “The burden on people who are doing classes virtually and operating clubs virtually is a lot right now. The focus has been on getting people registered, which became a lot more complicated than it would have been had we all been here together.”

Today, BergVotes is offering custom “I Voted During a Global Pandemic” stickers to students, in Seegers Union for those living on campus and via a Google Form to request one by mail for those living off campus. Members are offering a Zoom room and staffing the group’s social media accounts to field Election Day voting questions from students near and far.

Tomorrow, the members of BergVotes will take a bit of a breather, at least temporarily. The organization will use its social media presence to promote other groups’ election debriefings (the Department of Political Science is planning one, the OCE and the Office of Multicultural Life are collaborating on another) and will hold its own nonpartisan discussion of how the election went during its normal meeting time tomorrow night. However, its monthslong scramble to help ’Berg vote in the first COVID election will close with the polls.