Some students, for the second time in four years, are voting in what has been dubbed the “election of a lifetime.” The Campus sat down with students who were able to vote for the first time in the 2016 presidential election and compared their experiences four years ago to today’s.
Brent Edwards ’20.5 said he planned his whole feb-mester four years ago around voting in person in his hometown of Littleton, Colorado. He said he felt proud and excited going to the town library, standing in the different lines and walking from checkpoint to checkpoint. It was just as he imagined it would be growing up, only with some added jitters.
“You get a little nervous that you’re not going to fill something out right or you’re doing something wrong, even though you’re not,” he said.
For Kaleb Patterson ’21.5, whose home state of Washington always votes entirely by mail, his voting process has not changed much in the last four years. Patterson, a self-described “political junkie” at the time, developed a passion for the local elections in his hometown of Stanwood.
“I remember researching every single race, even down to the public utilities commissioner,” he said. “I was really excited all the way up to the day of the election to see who was going to win at the local level because I knew a fair amount of the candidates.” Voting by mail helped him to be prepared and vote when he felt ready, which he said is an advantage of the universal mail-in system.
Julia Sinton ’20.5 also mailed in her ballot, but she sent it from Barcelona, Spain. Living with a host family during her feb-mester, her first time voting was not at all how she envisioned it would be.
Her physical distance from the ballot boxes made exercising her right to vote feel heightened.
“It was being able to vote, not even the magnitude of the election, that was on my mind more than anything,” she said. “I was just thinking about the fact that I, Julia, was able to vote and could potentially make a difference in this country.”
Sinton also said she felt isolated without having American peers around her to discuss the election.
“I felt pretty removed,” she said. “The whole process of voting absentee from an international country, and then after going to a cafe, sitting and watching the results on my computer, was very isolating.”
Edwards, Sinton and Patterson all recalled feeling surprised about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but each watched its effects unfold differently.
For Sinton, the unexpected outcome made her a person of interest abroad. Whereas no one was really discussing the topic before the election, she said that people gave her “a lot of grief for being American” after the results came out.
“They were saying things like ‘you just screwed over your country,’ and ‘your country is doomed because of who you just elected,’” Sinton said. People asked her who she voted for, which made her feel defensive. Not having other Americans around to share these emotions or process the outcome underpinned feelings of loneliness.
Patterson said he assumed Clinton would win and that “there was no way, in [his] mind, that Trump was going to win.”
Patterson said that although he was a “through-and-through Republican” at the time, he knew from the second that Trump started his campaign that he would never vote for the current president.
He described his hometown as fairly conservative and said he thought he was not alone in assuming that Trump would not gain enough support to win. Throughout Election Day and into the night, he said, it was “surprise after surprise.”
“There was a part of me, as he was winning certain states, that, just because he was the underdog, found it sort of exciting,” Patterson said. When the results were announced, he remembered thinking, “Well, okay, it's not exactly what I want, but it's not really going to be the end of the world.”
Now, he said, he feels differently.
“I definitely think now that it really came from a place of privilege to not have to care, which I definitely didn't recognize at the time,” he said.
For Edwards, the outcome was a disappointment, though he had never been certain that Clinton would win, despite the outlook of the polls.
“There's always those last-minute doubts that kind of start creeping up, right after I cast my ballot,” he said. Despite these doubts, he described the outcome as surreal.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to trust the polls like that again after 2016,” Edwards said.
Though all three have experience voting by mail, the extra emphasis placed on absentee voting this year due to Covid-19, assertions about how to do it properly and confidence in its legitimacy affects them differently.
Because Washington has universal mail-in voting, Patterson is practiced in its process. The 2020 election has revealed to him that many others will have no such ease.
“I grew up in a place where voting is very easy for everybody, because they just mail [the ballot] to your house. I took that for granted,” he said. “I didn’t realize how, for most places honestly, it’s difficult to vote.”
Patterson once had an issue with his ballot signature, but it was quickly resolved. He said that seeing others struggles with the complications of mail-in voting has changed his preconceptions about voting access. “Voting needs to be very easy for everybody,” he said.
In 2016, Sinton paid $20 in postage to get her ballot to the U.S. on time. Her eagerness to exercise her right increased her concern about the international post system.
“It was weird for me to place all my faith in a Spanish Post Officer,” she said. “But I would have paid anything to get [the ballot] back [to the States].”
Sinton said that, since she is postmarking her ballot closer to her home in Ithaca, New York than she did in 2016, she has more confidence this time that her vote will arrive on time and be counted. Though Sinton feels confident about her own ballot, she recognizes the heightened general anxiety around voting during this election.
“It feels very chaotic,” she said. “I think there's a lot more stress and fear around it than ever before, combined with this urgency to get more people to vote.” This stress has fueled a get-out-the-vote effort this election that Sinton said has empowered her.
“I feel a lot of pressure, in a good way, to encourage my peers to vote,” she said. “It's really easy to go down dark rabbit holes with how the election could go. I think that all we can do is trust each other, and get out there and make it happen.”
For Sinton, the myriad concerns about the safe and proper execution of this election have also emphasized the importance of trust. She acknowledged the stress placed on the post office during this time, and said she understands why people are nervous.
“It seems like the whole theme of the election is that we have to trust each other,” she said. “We're putting trust in the post office, we're putting trust in our neighbors and the people across the country so we can help make this country the way we want it to be, as humanity.”
All three felt new and different motivations to vote in 2020, as the excitement they had expressed four years ago transformed into a sense of urgency and duty. Each views the stakes of this election as more existential for the country’s democracy than before.
Instead of voting for candidates because of their policies, as he usually does, Patterson said he is “voting directionally” with an eye to the trajectory of the country and its democracy.
In 2016, Patterson said, he believed in “the strength of our institutions and their strength in being able to push back against authoritarian tendencies.” The former College Republicans Co-president said the last four years have made him reconsider that faith.
“I don't think I’ve lost trust in the institution of voting itself… but I definitely had my trust in politicians broken,” Patterson said. Though he feels a strong sense of disillusionment with “politics in general,” he said, “you still have to engage.”
Edwards said he now has a sense of “how important it is to increase access to voting, increase education around voting and just show how important it is for everybody.”
“Because of the state our country is in right now,” Sinton said, “I think people feel a fire to vote now more than ever before.”
Cat McLaughlin is a super-senior feb from Gilford, NH. As a political science major, she became interested in journalism through media studies. In her free time she enjoys alpine skiing and sailing. She also has worked as a ski coach at the Middlebury Snow Bowl, is a lover of Proc dining hall, is hooked on iced coffee, and watches the Pride and Prejudice movie at least 20 times per year.