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How out-of-state college students navigated the 2020 election


Outside a student home in Collegetown, Ithaca, New York.
Phoebe Harms/Ithaca Week

As a town inhabited by students from three colleges—Ithaca College, Cornell University, and Tompkins Cortland Community College—Ithaca, New York has students who voted in the 2020 election, some of whom for the first time. In addition, many of these students are from out-of-state, meaning they had the option to register to vote in either their home state or in New York.

Only 25 percent of Cornell University’s student population are from in-state, and the same goes for about 45 percent of Ithaca College students. That leaves several students with the opportunity to decide where they should register to vote.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many of these students choose to vote in their home versus university state, a few out-of-state students from both Cornell University and Ithaca College shared their experiences with registering and voting and spoke of what influenced their decisions. There are a number of factors that can come into play when a student makes this decision, whether it’s in regard to general accessibility or strategizing for their personal ideal outcome.

Political leanings

In regard to the national ticket, certain states—like New York—consistently vote in favor of the Democratic candidate for president. . However, a number of out-of-state students hail from states where the outcome is more difficult to predict.

Ithaca College senior Billy Streleckis, originally from Pennsylvania, said he purposefully registered at home because he felt his vote would have more of an impact on the result.

“I’m a Democrat, and I know you can pretty much count on New York to always go blue,” Streleckis said. “Pennsylvania is a swing state, so there’s much more of a question of which way it’s going to go.”

However, national elections aren’t the only factor in students’ decisions about where to register.

Cornell University senior Cathy Li is originally from West Virginia but registered to vote in New York state. Li said because both New York and West Virginia consistently vote one way in the national race, she had paid more attention to state and local elections in New York. After noticing local and state races were tighter than they were at home, Li wanted to have a say in that outcome.

“I didn’t participate that much in politics when I was at home and 17, 18 years old,” said Li. “I really started noticing local politics more when I came here.”

Cathy Li, a senior at Cornell University and West Virginia native, who registered to vote in New York state. This year will be her first time voting after gaining US citizenship in 2019. Phoebe Harms/Ithaca Week

A sense of place

Other reasons for registering in certain states aren’t as complex. Some students said their decision of where to vote simply came down to where they wanted their vote to be represented. Cornell University Sophomore Rachel Horrigan is originally from Massachusetts and said she never really questioned the idea of registering anywhere else.

“I’d rather have a say in Massachusetts politics, as I consider that where I’m actually from, even though I’m in New York more often,” Horrigan said.

In addition, there are students who are not as politically active and put less thought into their registration. Ithaca College senior John Hunter said that while he generally isn’t involved in politics, he was approached his freshman year at a local festival in Ithaca and was asked if he was registered to vote. As he hadn’t registered in New Jersey, he decided it would be convenient to do so in Ithaca.

“I feel really at home here,” Hunter said. “ So I figured, why not be registered here?”

John Hunter, a senior at Ithaca College from New Jersey. He registered to vote in Ithaca after two women dressed as “Voter Fairies” approached him and encouraged him to register at Ithaca’s Porchfest in 2017.
Phoebe Harms/Ithaca Week

Obstacles for out-of-state voters

This year in particular—because of the coronavirus pandemic—there was a significant increase in mail-in and absentee voting. The influx of ballots through the United States Postal Service caused many Americans, particularly those on the left, to be concerned that their ballot might not arrive in time. .

Li said a major part of the reason she registered in New York state was because of the threat with mail-in voting.

“I know a lot of friends have requested mail-in ballots multiple times and never received them,” Li said. “So that’s a major part of it for me.”

For some students, the fear of not receiving their ballot came true. Streleckis said his absentee ballot for Pennsylvania never showed at his Ithaca address, and he ended up having to quickly make plans to return home to vote.

“I pretty much had to drop everything to find a way to get to Pennsylvania,” Streleckis said.

But despite complications, these students were able to cast their ballots for the first time in the state of their choosing. Horrigan—who voted via absentee ballot— said although voting by mail was nerve-wracking, it ended up being a successful experience.

“I was able to track my ballot, and I was able to see that it was coming and that it was received,” she said. “It felt really cool to vote for the first time.”

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