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Pa. College Students Worry About Mail-In Voting Amid USPS Delays

This is a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, County of Allegheny Official Mail-in General Election Ballot in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.
Gene J. Puskar
AP Photo
This is a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, County of Allegheny Official Mail-in General Election Ballot in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.


Penn State senior Kamron Sarmadi is registered to vote in Virginia. Mail-in voting is the only viable option for his first presidential election.


“I don’t want to drive three hours back home. And, obviously, before all the big changes started coming through, USPS is like the one government-run thing that I really appreciate,” Sarmadi said.


In April, pollsters predicted as much as 70% of Americans would vote by mail in the upcoming presidential election. Now, concerns over the reliability of the United States Postal Service and criticisms from President Trump about mail-in voting have cut that number in half. 


But some people have no other choice. Pennsylvania’s college students – who’ve been mailing in their ballots for years – are concerned about voting by mail this year. 


Sarmadi registered for a mail-in ballot at the beginning of the fall semester. By late September, he started to worry his ballot wouldn’t arrive on time to be counted for the election.


“A lot of the [USPS] cuts have been happening in strongly Democratic areas like where I’m from and probably like State College overall,” Sarmadi said. “So, I’m a little worried, but I’m trying to get my vote in as early as possible to avoid any complications or mishaps on that end.”


Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe said the county is expecting more than half of its voters to send in their ballots by mail this year. More than 33,000 Centre County voters have requested mail-in ballots. That’s up from 3,000 last year.


“The reason being is because the state of Pennsylvania for the primary election this year began for the first time ever no fault absentee voting,” Pipe said.


Pipe said Centre County postal services have experienced slight delays in delivery. But he’s not concerned about the election. He says the state has sped up electoral procedures like ballot approval to move the voting process along quickly.


“I think because so many — a record number of people due to the pandemic — are opting to vote by mail, from the state’s perspective, they want to make sure they can get the ballot approved as soon as possible so people can start to receive it. I think in previous years there wasn’t as much of a rush,” Pipe said.


On Sept. 18, a judge blocked orders to slow the U.S. Postal Service, calling it “politically motivated attack” ahead of the presidential election. The postmaster general, Louis Dejoy, agreed to halt changes until after Nov. 3.


Penn State political science professor Michael Berkman said there’s never been anything like this in previous elections. He predicts how this election goes could affect elections for years to come. 


“We have been doing mail-in voting in some states for many years, and they’re very good at it,” Berkman said. “States that have not been practiced in it are scrambling around trying to figure out how to do it right and making changes and laws that are very political fraught.” 


Berkman said the success of mail-in voting could depend on how close the election is because some states, like Pennsylvania, will not start counting votes until Nov. 3.


Throughout Pennsylvania, ballots postmarked by election day that arrive up to 3 days after the election will continue to be counted. Centre County has added drop boxes across the county for those worried about mailing their ballots. Berkman says the changes could help people feel more confident when voting.


“Prior to this everyone liked the post office. Everyone likes their mailman, their mail lady,” Berkman said. “Whether there are good, sound fiscal changes being done to the post office, the fact that they’re being done around the time of the election makes everyone concerned.”


Sarmadi believes college students are disproportionately affected in the upcoming election since they are a large population voting by mail. 


“We’re a very highly, densely populated community so taking away any advantage into being able to mail in our votes from anywhere, of course it’s going to affect a lot of people,” Sarmadi said.


Berkman believes many students have put off requesting mail-in ballots because they aren’t sure where they’ll be on election day due to the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, mail-in ballot requests must be received by Oct. 27, though waiting that long might cause challenges due to USPS delays. 


Sarmadi finally got his ballot in early October. He filled it out and sent it back right away. But he’s still waiting to hear whether his vote has been received.


Jade Campos is a student in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State.

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