Once her plane touched down in Houston, Texas, Geraldine Martinez, ‘22, quickly grabbed her belongings and rushed to meet her friend outside of the baggage claim on Oct. 23.
As she got inside the car awaiting her at the airport, the navigation was not set to her home, but rather to the nearest polling station so she could cast her vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Less than 48 hours later, she was on a flight back to Lehigh.
Though this might appear as an extreme measure, Martinez said she had no other choice, as her multiple requests for an absentee ballot had left her empty handed nearly a week before the election — and she’s not the only one.
Over the last two weeks, various Lehigh students have reported that they have not yet received their absentee or mail-in ballots for the upcoming election, and many noted that they are worried about not receiving them before it’s too late to vote.
Martinez said she had requested an absentee ballot in Texas toward the end of July in anticipation of her return to Lehigh, since she wanted to have it with her before she left for school. After weeks of waiting, she submitted another request at the end of August in hopes that it would be delivered to Lehigh’s Mail Center ahead of Election Day — and again, to no avail. As Nov. 3 grew nearer, Martinez said the safest option to ensure her vote was counted was to fly back home to vote in person.
“I know not everyone has the time or resources to get on a flight and go vote, but this election is really important, so I knew I had to vote,” Martinez said. “I just wouldn’t feel at peace with myself knowing that I didn’t vote. I was just like, ‘I have to do this.’”
Martinez is not the only Lehigh student who had trouble receiving a mail-in ballot with just days to spare before the election.
Ryan Bailey, ‘21, said he requested a mail-in ballot in early August and has been using the ballot tracker on the PA Voter Services website to track the status of his ballot. According to the tracker, Bailey’s ballot was mailed on Sept. 29, though he has yet to receive it.
With only about a week until Election Day, Bailey said he decided that this was a problem and proceeded to call the Northampton County Election Commission Board, who told him that this was an issue that they have been hearing about in multiple instances. Bailey said the agency told him his only options were to request for the cancellation of his ballot and to be mailed a new one or to go vote in-person at the Northampton County Courthouse in Easton.
“Basically, I would have been disinfranchised de facto if I didn’t have a car on campus to get me to the Easton courthouse,” Bailey said.
Besides Lehigh students, some residents of Northampton and Lehigh counties — two critical counties in determining which presidential candidate can lock up Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes — also have been experiencing delays in the deliverance of their mail-in ballots.
Brian Lucas, ‘21, president of Lehigh’s Student Political Action Coalition and a phone bank volunteer for Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), said he has spoken to “an alarming number of people” who have requested mail-in ballots but have not yet received them.
As a phone bank volunteer, Lucas said he routinely calls potential voters to ask if they’ve requested mail-in ballots, make them aware of deadlines and see if they need any assistance in the process. Through this process, Lucas said he has noticed a substantial amount of people who claim they requested a ballot, some over a month ago, and that it has yet to arrive.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were a plenty of people on the other side who had received a mail-in ballot and who were either waiting to return it or already returned it, but even with that, there were still an alarming number of people for this late in the election process and this close to Election Day to have not received it yet, and for them to have requested it be mailed so early on,” Lucas said.
Tara Stephenson, volunteer president of the Lehigh Valley chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the source of the problem could be the lack of resources local post offices have been given to meet the demand of the high volume of requested absentee or mail-in ballots.
“It’s not their fault, they take a lot of pride in their work, they just don’t have the resources they need to do as much volume as is what’s asked of them,” Stephenson said.
With Election Day inching closer, students have expressed their dismay for the delay in deliverance of mail-in ballots and its potential impact on the electoral outcome.
“It seems to be a pretty severe problem in Northampton County,” Bailey said. “Our county can swing Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania can decide who wins the election, so if people are requested ballots and not getting them and then they are not allowed to vote, that can have some pretty serious impacts.”
Lucas said with Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District’s history as a bellwether, it’s frightening to think that the thoughts and feelings of some people who live in this district aren’t going to be reflected in the election if they don’t receive their ballots in time or if extenuating circumstances keep them from being able to vote in person.
“Anyone who has trouble having their vote counted regardless of who they vote for and where they’re voting, that’s a problem, that is a huge problem,” Lucas said. “It would be a shame to see that many people do not have their vote count or have issues or have to go through that much trouble to do something that should’ve been very easy to do.”
For residents of Northampton County who still haven’t received their ballots, Becky Bartlett, Northampton County’s deputy director of administration and public information officer, suggests contacting the Northampton County Elections Office to work with them to spoil their first ballot and help them get a new one, or going to their designated polling place to cast a provisional ballot.
An elections technician in the Northampton County Office of Elections and Voter Registration said it is possible for ballots to get lost in the mail, though this is very rare.
“Most of the time, (ballots) get to the voters, but very few times there are people that don’t get their ballot at all,” said Zach, a Northampton County elections technician who wasn’t comfortable sharing his last name. “Should that happen, their best bet is to come into our office and we can replace their ballot if they’re already registered, but since the election is on Tuesday, it’s best to do that as soon as possible.”
Because of Pennsylvania’s swing state status, Lucas said he is concerned about the disappearance of mail-in ballots.
“To have the most accurate representation of what the people want, you need to have every single vote count and every single vote be recorded,” Lucas said.