Joseph R. Biden Jr. became president-elect of the United States on Sat. Nov. 7, four days after Wheaton students cast their vote for president, many for the first time. Following days of ballot-counting in key swing states, Biden flipped Pennsylvania, claiming 279 electoral votes and 50.5% of the popular vote, according to the New York Times. As several states continued to count absentee ballots and President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, students shared their experience of the 2020 election with the Record.
Freshman English major Sofia Hadley was worshiping with her “Bro-Sis” group when she heard the news of Biden’s victory, but she said she hasn’t felt comfortable in voicing her approval of the president-elect.
“I think that it is difficult to be at Wheaton because people are not as open about expressing what they believe here whereas in high school I was used to people being very open about it,” Hadley said. “I am excited but I also want to be respectful of other people. For a lot of people this is a disappointment, and there is definitely some tension at Wheaton. But I think that this is good for our country.”
Junior psychology and Spanish major Kennedy Walpus said she’s excited to see an upcoming Biden administration but that Wheaton students should remember that they still need to hold the winning ticket accountable for promises made during the campaign.
“It’s kind of a breath of relief that he got elected,” Walpus said. “During the election I was more scared for [my LGBT and POC friends] and how the future would occur with Trump being reelected. [Electing Biden] is a small step in the right direction, but we’re getting there.”
One senior IR major expressed disappointment but not surprise in the election outcome. “Certain things he stands for I don’t think we as Christians should defend. Not to say that the other candidate was perfect, but I think [Trump] would have been my preference.”
The 2020 election marked the first time most Wheaton students could vote for a presidential candidate. Mirroring a national spike in mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students cast a ballot by mail, but 11 percent of students indicated they were voting in-person on Nov. 3.
Student Government’s Oct. 11 email instructed students on how to prepare for in-person voting — what to bring to the polls and which locations were assigned based on on-campus housing. The majority of Wheaton’s in-person voters visited either Gary Methodist Church or College Church on Nov. 3 to cast their ballots.
The Record asked students exiting these polling locations how they decided between in-person and mail-in ballots, and students reported a variety of reasons and voting experiences.
On the doors of Gary Methodist Church, large signs announced “STAY SAFE” in Spanish and English, reminding voters to socially distance and wear a mask. Masked and gloved polling facilitators sat behind plexiglass walls as they distributed voters’ ballots. The voting booths themselves were much the same—each person was shielded by black dividers as they marked down their preferred candidates. There was a similar set-up at College Church.
“It was super fast; I was in and voting in five minutes,” said junior English literature and art history major Javian Walter, who voted at Gary Methodist Church. Rather than mail his ballot, Walter said he wanted to savor the feeling of walking into his first presidential election. “I like the idea of presently embodying the process on the day in terms of tradition. As a black student this is important to me. I need to be here on this day for this.”
American flags marked the entrance to the College Church Commons, a large event space in the brick building opposite the sanctuary where polls were set up. Inside, poll workers offered hand sanitizer and gloves before providing a ballot and directing people to distanced voting booths. Then, spread at six-foot intervals throughout the room, voters leaned over their ballots at standing-level desks with long metal legs. Black plastic dividers shielded their ballots from view.
Sophomore history and social science major Trevor Gabriel was also a first-time voter. After missing the deadline to register and vote by mail, Gabriel decided to vote at College Church at the last minute.
“I almost didn’t vote because I didn’t know if I’d be able to register, but I felt like it was my duty to vote,” Gabriel said. “I’ve never done this before, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but they walked us through it.”
Two girls giggled as they placed “I Voted’ stickers on their jackets, while other voters silently appended their own. Wheaton students could be identified by their “COVID-Safe, Thunder-Strong” wristbands as they visited the polling station, whether to drop off mail-in ballots or to vote in person.
Freshman biology major and first-time voter Faith Woychuk said “I wanted to have the experience of voting in person. It is my first time, and I am excited.”
Freshman English major Anna Catherine McGraw was another first-time voter who went to the poll with her father, Wheaton’s Dean of Social Sciences Bryan McGraw. They carpooled to Gary Methodist to cast their ballots and then celebrated with ice cream afterward.
“It felt like another stepping stone to becoming an adult,” Anna said.
In terms of COVID-19 safety, Bryan McGraw likened voting in-person to running errands at the grocery store. Anna said she expected long lines but was surprised at how quickly the process moved.
“It was really fun to [vote with my dad] because he’s the reason I’m interested in politics,” Anna said. “I was expecting it to be super crowded but there was almost no one there.”
A majority of Wheaton students voted by mail this election. Junior applied health science major Priscilla Chinn said her experience was “very smooth” and “very prompt.” But for other students, errors in the process prevented voting.
Senior music pedagogy major Sara Beth Thomas, whose mail-in ballot from Oregon was delivered to her parents’ home, never received her ballot at Wheaton. “My speculation is that maybe someone saw it was coming from Portland, which is strongly Democratic, and threw it away,” she said.
Despite these setbacks, professor of political science Amy Black was encouraged by early signs that young people would vote at a greater rate than they did in the 2016 presidential election.
“You really want to get [the 18-25 year old category] to the polls, but they’re some of the hardest to get to the polls. Voting is a habit, just like any other habit, but younger voters first have to learn to make that investment,” Black said. “[Based on early voting] it looks like there are more younger voters showing up and it seems like they are energized.”
Throughout the campaign season, the college has been advocating for balance and understanding across partisan lines.
“I was encouraged that the administration stayed above the partisan fray by not coming close to endorsing any candidate or party,” said David Iglesias, who directs the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics.
Wheaton College, IL