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Drive-thru ballots and ‘finger condoms’: Students talk voting in the 2020 general election


This election, thousands of people are voting on campus at Rice Stadium. Students told the Thresher the process was smooth and efficient.

By Ella Feldman     10/30/20 9:46am

Two days after the early voting period started in Texas on Oct. 13, Katimah Harper got in a car with her boyfriend and drove down the street to NRG Stadium. They pulled up behind a line of cars and waited for about 10 minutes, then pulled into a tent, where a poll worker checked their IDs and gave them a tablet to fill out their ballots for the 2020 general election.

Texas is known for having drive-thru everything — honey butter chicken biscuits, ATMs, margaritas. This fall, due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, Harris County also introduced drive-thru voting. The process was challenged by Texas and Harris County Republican parties but ultimately protected by the Texas Supreme Court, although Republicans have filed a similar petition again.

Harper, a Duncan College junior, said that drive-thru voting was safe and efficient, and that voting early quelled her antsiness.

“In one of my classes, someone had shared that it had only taken them about half an hour to [vote drive-thru], and I wanted to avoid a long line if I could, though I was prepared with games and snacks if it came down to it,” Harper said. “I wanted to go early both to avoid the lines, but also because my feelings of desperation regarding this election made waiting any longer than that feel impossible.”

Harper is one of the more than 8.1 million voters that have cast their ballot early in Texas through Oct. 27. Over one million of them voted in Harris County and 900,000 of them are under the age of 30. Texas isn’t the only state with unprecedented turnout rates, especially among young voters — states like Michigan, Georgia, Florida and more are also smashing previous voting records. Ahead of election day on Nov. 3, the Thresher spoke with 14 Rice students about how they’re engaging with this unprecedented election.

Voting like never before

Through Oct. 28, 11,738 people had voted early at Rice’s polling station, located outdoors at the football stadium. Many students who voted on campus over the past few weeks told the Thresher that the process was smooth and easy.

“Having an on-campus location is so convenient — I just went when I had some free time,” Shawn Zheng, a Hanszen College junior, said. “The process was very easy and felt safe. Mask usage was pervasive and distancing was kept well for the most part. I went during a lull and it took 20 minutes.”

Guillermo Ortiz Ahedo, a Sid Richardson College senior, has been volunteering as a poll worker at the stadium. Ahedo said he volunteered for the position because many older people who have been poll workers in the past are staying home this election due to the pandemic. As far as he’s seen, he said, short wait times and social distancing are the norms.

“The wait times have been pretty chill. I think no more than like, 10 minutes,” Ahedo said. “Pretty much 99.9 percent of people have worn masks.”

Benji Wilton, a freshman at Wiess College, was originally planning to mail in a ballot to Missouri, but ultimately opted not to because it seemed like “kind of a hassle, especially with the uncertainties surrounding the speed of [U.S. Postal Service] delivery,” he said. He ultimately voted in Texas at the stadium, where he said the poll workers were very helpful.

“I did not have a Texas state ID or a U.S. passport, so I brought my birth certificate and voter registration certificate, and [the poll workers] were very accommodating,” Wilton said.

Safety precautions at the stadium have included mandatory distancing, plexiglass and finger coverings, which multiple students described to the Thresher as “finger condoms.”

“There was someone handing out what can only be described as finger condoms for your voting finger, that you put on to your finger to vote on the machine with,” Hannah Young, a Wiess sophomore who voted early at the stadium, said. “When it was handed to me, I just lost it. It was so funny.”

However, not everyone’s voting experience was entirely smooth. Hope Fa-Kaji, a senior at Will Rice College, voted early at Rice Stadium. When she went up to her machine, she said the language had already been selected. She had entered her pin before she realized and consequently, she ended up filling out her entire ballot in Spanish. Luckily, Fa-Kaji speaks “enough [Spanish] to get through the form,” she said.

Other students voted in the election by mail. Gina Mathew, a Sid Richardson College junior, is enrolled at Rice remotely this semester from her home in Kansas. She decided to keep her voter registration in Harris County and send in her ballot through the postal service.

“I did have some hesitation about voting by mail, not because I didn't think it was safe, but because I was afraid I would miss a step and have my ballot rejected,” Mathew said. “Like, I was wondering, ‘Did I use the right amount of postage? Or does my signature match what the county clerk has on file? And will my ballot even be counted in time?’”

Ultimately, Mathew said her ballot was approved — but the process to get there wasn’t simple.

“I was a little disheartened by how confusing it was to navigate this process, and I think Texas especially saw some very blatant attempts of voter suppression this year,” she said. “I believe the accessibility of the ballot box is a measure of a healthy democracy, and this country has a ways to go to ensure every citizen has the right and the ability to vote.”

Maya Levitan, a Duncan junior, said she opted to send an absentee ballot to her home state of Pennsylvania due to her interest in local politics there and because it’s a swing state. She said she was also nervous about the mail-in process.

“In past years, it has not taken so long, but this year the [President Donald] Trump campaign tried to sue to impose greater restrictions on mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. As a result, the mail-in ballots could not be sent out until the judge on the case threw the lawsuit out,” Levitan said. “I am a bit anxious about whether my ballot will be counted.”

On the ballot

Harper, who voted at the drive-thru, said she cast a straight-ticket ballot for the Democratic party.

“I don't always do my research of each candidate as thoroughly as I should and tend to cast an all-Democratic ballot,” Harper said. “Normally, I would be a lot more critical of that, but I've been so thoroughly disappointed by the Republican Party throughout Trump's presidency that I can't imagine any Republican candidate, especially in such a conservative state, to be in support of ideals that are important to me.”

Ortiz Ahedo, who in addition to being a poll worker is a member of the Rice University Young Democrats, said his vote for Joe Biden — and against incumbent president and Republican nominee Donald Trump — is a matter of his personal values.

“I mean, Trump and the Republicans have been absolutely awful from the very beginning,” Ortiz Ahedo said. “The amount of attacks he's made on our democracy, the racism — literally the antithesis of everything I stand for is Donald Trump.”

Other students said that they voted for Biden, but not enthusiastically. Alissa Kono, a Wiess junior and president of the Rice University Young Democrats, said that Biden is not the candidate she had hoped to vote for in her first presidential election.

“I'm quite honest that Biden was not my favorite candidate, nor is he someone that I'm super excited to support, although I voted for him,” Kono said. “I wanted a candidate that’s more progressive, who has more of a history of supporting members of the Black community and just in general has a better track record, but I understand the consequences of the presidential election.”

Brandon Gan, a Wiess senior and president of the Rice University College Republicans, also said he was disappointed with the presidential candidates. He cast his ballot for Trump, he said, although the president wasn’t his first choice.

“I don't particularly think [Donald Trump] is the best Republican for the office, but out of the choices I had, I think he represented a lot of my views better. Of course I don't share a lot of views with him, but despite his inability to speak clearly and in a way that I would like about certain issues, his policies are better in my opinion than Biden's proposed policies,” Gan said. “It is kind of unfortunate I had to take him.”

Many students told the Thresher they were much more excited to vote in local races than for a presidential candidate. Gan said he was happy to cast a vote for John Cornyn, the current Republican senator for Texas who’s up for reelection. 

Other students said they enthusiastically cast a vote for Cornyn’s opponent, Democratic nominee MJ Hegar. Julia Huang, a Martel College senior who voted early at the stadium, described Hegar as “a strong woman who aligns with many of my political beliefs.”

Kono said she’s keeping her eyes on the race between Republican incumbent Dan Crenshaw and Democratic nominee Sima Ladjevardian, who are vying to represent Texas's 2nd congressional district, as well as the race between Republican incumbent Sarah Davis and Democratic challenger Ann Johnson to represent District 134. 

Zheng, who voted on campus, said he also voted enthusiastically for Ladjevardian, who was the best fit for his political priorities.

“While I didn’t share the same stance as those I voted for on all the issues, a common priority was climate change mitigation and protection of civil liberties and civil rights,” Zheng said.

Audrey Cabay, a Martel senior who voted early at Rice Stadium, said she wasn’t thrilled about any of the candidates she cast her ballot for.

“I would really love to see John Cornyn out of office and MJ Hegar seems competent, but after the year we've had, I wish campaign platforms could or would be a little more ambitious,” Cabay said. “The Democrat for railroad commissioner, while obviously miles better than someone being sued for breaking the laws he would be responsible for, does not have a very inspiring platform given climate change and what I would like to see with regards to energy transition commitments.”

Beyond voting

Recent polls of voters in Texas suggest that the race between Biden and Trump for president is neck and neck in the state, and many students said they felt honored to take part in what they consider to be a historic election. Young, who voted early on campus, said she thinks that Texas might flip from red to blue.

“The idea of being able to flip Texas is so exciting, because obviously if you can flip Texas, whoever gets Texas ... would win, because Texas has so many seats in the electoral college,” she said. “I know a lot of people, like members of my family, who are voting for Biden but then Republican on everything else, and I feel like there might be a lot of Texans who are going to vote like that.”

Gan said that although he has observed an uptick in Democratic organizing in Texas in recent years and although the state is “getting pretty purple,” he doesn’t think it’ll flip blue this election.

Alex Vela, a Lovett College senior, is one of the co-founders of Rice for Biden — the only group on campus organizing specifically around one candidate in the 2020 general election. He said that the high voter turnout rates in Texas are promising for the Biden campaign.

“We've been having almost monstrous levels of early voting turnout, and that's been really promising and exciting,” Vela said. “There's a general adage that when people vote, Democrats win, and we're hopeful to see that continue to play out as the election gets closer.”

Rice for Biden, which has 45 members, has been working on getting people to commit to a plan to vote, Vela said, and on providing the public with information that will help them navigate the voting process. Earlier in the semester, they worked on getting members of the Rice community registered to vote before the deadline.

The Rice Young Democrats have been engaging in similar efforts, according to Kono. They’ve also been phone banking for Democratic candidates such as Johnson and Ladjevardian and have published a voting guide. The group is not endorsing candidates because “compared to the primaries, there are clear partisan races, so we didn't feel the need to explicitly endorse each candidate,” Kono said.

Earlier in the semester, the Rice University College Republicans — a group with 81 active members, according to Gan — worked on a voter registration drive with other political organizations on campus, although Gan said the Republicans were less involved in that effort than he would have liked.

“I don't think we had many volunteers — a lot of our officers were busy with other things. So that unfortunately was not really the turn out I'd hoped for, but we'll probably plan something new,” Gan said. “As an organization, we've mainly just focused on our own members for this semester.”

The group has not endorsed candidates or published a voting guide, Gan said.

Most students the Thresher spoke with said they feel as though the Rice student body is very engaged in the election despite COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings, which are often a key component of political organizing. 

Emily Wang, a senior at Will Rice who voted as an absentee in her home state of Ohio, said she has observed Rice students often engaging with the election over social media, although she noted that such engagement can be divisive.

“Social media has been incredibly polarizing, with media outlets and candidates caricaturing issues and political affiliation,” Wang said. “Consequently, the general public seems to exhibit more emotionally charged responses to candidates of different political parties instead of more thoroughly considering their experience, goals and effectiveness in office.”

Wang, along with many other students, said they got their voting process started early — either by requesting their ballots well in advance or voting in person as soon as they could, often because they were antsy to get the process over with. Vela, however, waited until one of the last days of early voting to cast his ballot for Biden and other Democrats.

Why? Because he wanted to vote at 3 a.m.

“[I voted] on the 29th, which is when the 24-hour voting center is going to be open,” Vela said. “It just sounded like a fun thing to do and you know, you gotta vote somehow, so I chose that day. Because you can vote, and then you can go to IHOP.”

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