Editor’s note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Sometimes you have to go the extra mile when democracy is on the line.
And sometimes — as was the case for Texans Meredith Reilly and Zachary Houdek — you have to go 3,000 extra miles.
Worried because their absentee ballots never arrived at their homes away from home, the two American University students rented a Volkswagen Golf and drove 30 hours across half a dozen states to cast their votes in person this week.
Their spur-of-the-moment cross-country journey from Washington, D.C., to their homes in Texas was inspired not by the kind of restlessness that grips college students in the throes of midterm season, but by a sense of civic duty intensified by the political division and unrest the country has seen recently, they said.
“I spend so much of my time and energy telling my friends how important it is to vote,” said Reilly, 20, a political science junior who cast her ballot Thursday in Fort Worth. “So the idea of not voting was a tough one for me. It felt so hypocritical. I’m going to tell everyone to vote, and I’m just not going to? That’s not going to happen. So we made it a point to hop in the car.”
As evidenced by long lines and shattered turnout records in Texas amid a frightening pandemic, as a cratering economy and social unrest ratchet up the stakes in a divisive and motivating presidential race, voters like Reilly and Houdek are resolute in their mission to cast their ballots and undeterred by the crop of challenges showing up in an election like no other.
Underpinning recent stories of voters’ determination are vexing obstacles like missing absentee ballots, a complicated registration system and other issues brought into focus by an influx of early and absentee voters.
Absentee voters in the U.S. who haven’t received their ballots in the mail yet can still show up in person to be counted. But voters who don't get their ballots before Election Day and can’t get home to vote in person are out of options. Political activists and others are encouraging voters to avoid mailing in their ballots at this late stage and try their best to show up in person.
“It should be streamlined, easy and simple to vote,” said Dallas attorney Ladd Hirsch, whose daughter flew home to vote after her absentee ballot didn’t reach her. “And that doesn’t mean to make it easier to defraud it. It means put in the necessary protections to make it easier for people to vote.”
More than 1 million early and absentee votes had been cast by Texans younger than 30, according to a recent study by Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Data on requested ballots by age group was not immediately available for Texas.
“Who says voting in Texas is hard?” asked U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a recent Tweet, remarking on high numbers of early voters turning out last month.
Texan Bradley Bain told Cornyn on Twitter, in a comment that was retweeted nearly 30,000 times, that he was spending more than $400 to fly to Dallas and vote in person “because you ‘accidentally’ flagged me as committing voter fraud in 2018, took me off the voter rolls, and made me ineligible to vote by mail in 2020.”
“It’s been such a saga just to figure out how to vote,” the 23-year-old, a recent graduate of Pomona College in California, told The Dallas Morning News in an interview. “I wasn’t going to waste my opportunity to do so.”
Bain cast his vote Tuesday in person, the report said.
Those encumbered by distance and dependent on absentee ballots — highly vulnerable to human error and other hiccups — include thousands of college students living out of state but voting in their home counties. Some are voting their first presidential election.
“While we are privileged enough to have the funds and flexibility to make this trip, most people are likely facing this voter suppression silently,” said Reilly, who estimated the cost of their trip at $800, paid for with Houdek's savings and Reilly's job earnings.
Houdek voted in person Wednesday in Austin, saying that he saw not voting as a non-option for him. Both friends had never voted in a presidential election before, having been too young in 2016.
The two began their journey home Friday, planning to take turns at the wheel while they attended classes online in the car.
“It was a big relief, especially after such a long trip,” Houdek said. “I was really proud to say that I made this trip, I voted in person, and hopefully I was able to inspire other people to get out and go vote in something that was so important to us.”
Mia Hirsch, a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, was not going to miss her chance to vote after her ballot didn’t show up at her college address.
“I flew home yesterday, and I voted today,” she said Thursday from Dallas. “I have my sticker on right now.”
Her father was happy to have his daughter in the house for a few days, and proud that she had heeded his advice and grabbed a $329 flight home to vote.
“It didn’t take a lot of encouragement,” Ladd Hirsch said. “She wanted to do it, and she was frustrated. … I’m proud that she made this a priority, and she recognized how important it is.”
It was the first time his 21-year-old daughter had voted in person. Mia Hirsch said she wanted to vote in Texas because she knew her vote could make a difference there, especially if Texas might become an 11th-hour battleground state.
Plus, her dad reminded her, “if Trump wins by one vote in Texas, you’re going to be miserable for the next four years.”
Rabindra Kar’s daughter drove 550 miles round trip from her college in Smith County to her home in Williamson in order to vote, Kar said.
His daughter had to register to vote twice before county officials would accept it because they said she signed the application too soon before her 18th birthday.
Then her ballot application was never processed, Kar said.
The idea of her voting in Smith County was not even discussed, he said, because she considers Williamson County her home.
“Only because our family is so committed to voting that my daughter actually got to vote,” Kar said.
This story was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica's Electionland project. If you encounter an issue while voting that you think merits our attention, let us know here.
Disclosure: Northwestern University - Medill School of Journalism has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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