campaign election ballot box

Members of the IUP community met virtually to hold a Six O’Clock Series to address elections in the time of COVID-19. Topics discussed ranged from the barriers to voting during the current pandemic, to how students and community members could overcome these issues. Another topic discussed was finding out more about candidates in your area as well as how to get involved in local politics, and another was how to properly participate in the census.

Christine Baker, assistant professor of history at IUP, spoke briefly about the changed dates of the primary elections in Pennsylvania, which were originally scheduled for April 28 but were moved to Tuesday, June 2.

“They did this because they did not want people coming to vote and gathering close … it’s not considered particularly safe to have people come together in this way,” she said. “Also, a lot of poll workers tend to be older Americans who are at a higher risk of complications if they get the coronavirus.”

All deadlines surrounding the election have been extended as well. These include the deadlines for people to register to vote and for applying for absentee or mail-in ballots. The new deadlines are May 18 to register to vote and May 26 for mail-in ballot applications. Voters have until June 2 to send in their mail-in ballot.

Eric Barker, a communications technology manager with the university, chimed in to let participants know that mail-in ballots must be received and in hand by June 2. “They can’t just be postmarked by that date,” he said.

Barker went on to show an example of a mail-in ballot that he has and advocated for people to check out the process of mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, which can be done online by visiting votespa.com.

“It only takes a couple minutes and (all) you will need is a Pennsylvania driver’s license or ID number.”

From there, once your mail-in ballot is received, you fill it out normally and return it in the provided envelope. Barker wanted to make sure, though, that those sending in ballots by mail know to fill out a small write-in section on the back of the return envelope.

Barker also discussed some advantages of choosing to vote by mail. “What’s nice … is that you have time to Google or do your research and figure out the qualifications of these candidates if you don’t already know.”

A question was asked about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and the fear that they might not be counted, or overlooked. Professor Baker, who has worked as an election observer, assured that all ballots are counted. “At the end of the day, when the polls close, they open up the box where they have mail-in ballots and absentee ballots and they literally feed those ballots into the same election machine, so your vote is counted exactly the same as anybody else’s,” she said.

Baker also touched on how to vote in primaries in Pennsylvania as well as what will be on the ballot locally. For those who are unsure of what will appear when they go to vote, Baker suggested visiting ballotpedia.org.

“It’s a nonpartisan website,” she said. “If you go there and you put in your address where you are registered to vote, it will show you what is on the ballot in your area.”

The Indiana Gazette archives and social media platforms were also mentioned as a source of information on local candidates and elections.

“Most candidates will have social media pages and websites. There are resources out there,” she said. “Another good place to look is the local newspaper … a lot of times if you search the archives of The Indiana Gazette, you will find op-eds or stories that are written about the candidates that are running.”

Another suggestion that was made was for voters to also double-check their voter registration and make sure everything was in place, especially for students who may have been registered here in Indiana, but find themselves at home sooner than they thought. For those who are unsure of their status or for those wishing to change their address or party affiliation, they are urged to go to votespa.com to find out this information.

The discussion was then turned over to Kevin Foster, the assistant director of student involvement and leadership development at the Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement at IUP, who is also part of the census initiative here in Indiana.

“We’re working together to try and get as many people, if not every person, who is living in Indiana County, counted,” he said.

Foster’s primary focus is working with IUP making sure that all on and off campus students are counted. He went on to explain how important it is to get a count of those students living in the area off campus since there’s already a program in place with the residence life department to help get them registered.

“With people going back to their hometowns for COVID-19, you should still be registering in the census where you were living when you were at school,” Foster told students. “The census takes a snapshot as of April 1st.”

Foster detailed how this count helps benefit the area by showing those who registered. He cited a study done by George Washington University. “They found that for each person that does register, it equates to about $2,000 … depending on the amount of people registered for a municipality or county can impact additional grants or funding that can be provided to an area.”

Participation in the census, Foster said, is entirely confidential by law. He also urged students and community members to answer census questions online due to the quick nature of the process, as well as for the safety of participants and census takers, to prevent them from coming out and speaking face-to-face during the pandemic. All information and participation can be completed by visiting 2020census.gov.

A question was asked about students who may have already been counted in the census in their hometowns. Foster said to still fill it out as though they were living at their Indiana address. The census has ways of making sure that duplicates are sorted correctly.

Baker also urged participation in the census as someone who studies history. “Historians also think that this is super important,” she said. “We use it for a lot of research. The census gives us information about everyone.”

The virtual floor was then handed to Zo→ Grimaldi, a member of Organizing Together 2020, a federal, independent campaign and coalition working in 2020 battleground states who spoke about getting involved in politics on the local level. She told participants that, while it may feel intimidating, anyone can get involved.

“We should all make civic engagement a habit again,” Grimaldi said. “People feel like there’s so much going on and it’s easy to be overwhelmed … but I believe that politics is something you learn by doing.”

Grimaldi urged those who want to become involved to find one specific candidate or cause or something you care about and go into it head first as much as you can. “Jump in, don’t be afraid. Pick one or two things, don’t feel like you have to know everything … get really good about those things and then look into candidates that fit those beliefs.”

Discussion then turned to Organizing Together 2020 and the work they are currently doing such as pushing for people to learn about vote by mail. The organization also has resources to allow people to jump in and get involved. The organization also has training for those who wish to get involved and help spread information and awareness.

Overall, Baker and Grimaldi were in agreement that you don’t have to be completely knowledgeable about a candidate to vote. “I think that being involved in your community is something that’s really important,” Baker said. “And you don’t have to have perfect knowledge, or know everything to make a decision. It’s totally fine to look things up and do your research. But I honestly think that being involved is what’s most important.”