Public Policy junior William Brown and LSA sophomore Fatema Dohadwala were left in a lurch when their Texas absentee ballots never arrived in the mail.
Both University of Michigan students wanted to vote in their home state and followed all the steps to have an absentee ballot mailed to each of their Ann Arbor addresses. But the two found themselves each without one, left to their own devices to try to make their voices heard as Election Day neared.
Record numbers of mail-in ballots across the country have complicated the timeline for obtaining clear election results. In some states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, vote-by-mail ballots could not be counted until the polls opened Tuesday.
Public officials have raised concern over the speed and efficiency of the United States Postal Service, which is responsible for delivering absentee ballots to voters. Voters across the U.S. were advised to deliver their ballots to drop box locations due to concerns that ballots would not be delivered in time.
As returning late absentee ballots has become a race against the clock, other people found themselves in the same boat as Brown and Dohadwala. For some, ballots never arrived. Multiple Texans had to travel to their home state to vote when their absentee ballots never showed up, The Texas Tribune reported last week.
These delays forced Brown and Dohadwala to go the extra mile — figuratively and literally — to cast a ballot in this election. For Brown, this required a plane ride home to vote early. Dohadwala ended up changing her voter registration to a state she was less familiar with politically to ensure her vote would at least be counted somewhere.
Booking a plane to cast a ballot
Brown mailed his absentee application to his clerk in late August and was told he was good to go. As Election Day inched closer, he began to wonder when his absentee ballot was coming.
The answer: It already had — at least that’s what the state said.
He was surprised to see when he checked his ballot’s status online that it was allegedly delivered in early October. But he had never received it. When Brown called his clerk’s office to request a new one, he was told the office was not allowed to send two absentee ballots to one person.
Brown had a choice: either switch his voter registration to Michigan or find a way to get to Texas.
There were positives and negatives to each option, Brown said. Voting in Michigan would be more convenient, but Brown, who is from San Antonio, also felt compelled to vote in local and state elections that he felt his vote could help decide.
He ultimately decided to book a flight for Oct. 17 and vote early on Oct. 18 to make his voice heard in these close races, despite knowing his home state would likely back President Donald Trump. Texas was called relatively quickly for Trump after polls closed despite speculation that it could take center stage as an unexpected swing state.
“I didn’t really feel that it was my place to vote for local races beyond the presidency in Ann Arbor, because it didn’t really affect my life as much as a vote in my home city would,” Brown said. “I ended up making the decision based on that rather than just the presidential vote.”
Getting home presented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Brown was worried about leaving a college town where positive cases were rising to go to his family’s home. He got tested three days before his flight and quarantined after taking the test, though there was the concern of exposing himself on the plane.
Brown had planned to stay home for a few days, but pushed his flight back after Washtenaw County issued a stay-in-place order for all University of Michigan undergraduates. For students who left campus, they were asked not to return until the order expired Tuesday morning.
While he said it was a no-brainer making the decision to vote, it is not lost on him that the Texas government failed in making an absentee ballot accessible to him thousands of miles away.
“I’m not happy that I had to fly home — the fact that my ballot didn’t get delivered is upsetting,” Brown said. “And I hope that by shining a light on the fact that this happened to a lot of people nationally, not just in Michigan, we can work on that. There’s a reason there are absentee ballots, and the fact that they aren’t working the way they should be is disappointing.”
With no absentee ballot, a Texas voter becomes a Michigan voter
Dohadwala requested her absentee ballot — a confusing process in and of itself, she said — three weeks before the election. Then, she started playing the waiting game.
As Election Day got closer, she began asking volunteers helping students vote in the Diag and employees working in the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s satellite office in the University of Michigan Museum of Art for help. Naturally, they knew less about Texas absentee policy than Michigan’s, but many told Dohadwala her safest bet would be to re-register under her Ann Arbor address and vote in Michigan.
Dohadwala heard bad things about long wait times over the phone for election questions in Texas. Her situation was further complicated by the fact that she was not sure if the University would move to entirely remote learning by Election Day, which made her question if she would be back in Dallas or still be on campus. It was also her first time voting, making the absentee ballot requesting process all the more foreign.
Luckily for Dohadwala, voting in Michigan was a simpler process than what she was experiencing in Texas. With the passage of Proposal 3 in 2018, voters are able to register through Election Day in Michigan and request no-excuse absentee ballots.
Dohadwala still felt conflicted about changing her registration, however, because she said she is more familiar with the political landscape in Texas and thought that her vote would matter more in local and state races. She waited for her ballot until last week, when she decided that it wouldn’t be returned in time even if it did show up in her mailbox.
With this decision, Dohadwala became one of the thousands of University students who registered to vote at the UMMA and one of the 3.2 million Michigan absentee voters who helped decide which candidates won the U.S. Senate race and the state’s 16 Electoral College votes. The Associated Press announced Wednesday night that Democrats former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Gary Peters had won their elections in the state.
“I would have done as much as I could to try and get my vote counted where I wanted it to count,” Dohadwala said. “At the end of the day, because it didn’t work out, the bigger picture was to just make it count wherever it is.”
Voting is worth the extra effort, students say
On Election Day, as early results began rolling in, Dohadwala and Brown agreed that they felt proud to have voted despite the logistical headaches their missing absentee ballots caused.
Dohadwala still said she wishes she could have been able to vote in her local and state races in Texas. But after everything she has seen over the past year with the resurfacing racial justice movement and COVID-19 pandemic, she felt like she had to make her voice heard in any way possible in this election.
“This year, more than ever — over the summer with all the injustices and the way that the COVID-19 pandemic was handled by the current president — I just felt like change was just really important and every vote counts,” Dohadwala said. “I felt like it was a moral obligation.”
For students who feel like their voice doesn’t matter, Brown said it is important to look to the 2000 Presidential Election when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a mere 500 votes in Florida, putting him over the 270-vote threshold necessary to win the Electoral College.
Despite the added inconvenience caused by having to miss a day of class to fly home and adjust to learning from a new environment, Brown said he didn’t regret it.
“Even if my vote is not the vote that flips a certain race, I would do it again,” he said. “While you may think your vote doesn’t matter because of the Electoral College or whatever it might be, on a state-by-state level down the ballot, your vote certainly does matter.”
Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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