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Meet the Americans voting early and in-person despite the Covid-19 pandemic

Voters across America share why they’re turning out to vote in person this year despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: Texas voters line up to vote
Voters line up at the American Airlines Center during early voting in Dallas on Oct. 15.LM Otero / AP

Voting in this election is so important to Jeremy Kirkland that he bought a plane ticket from Chicago, where he's a sophomore at Columbia College, to his home in Virginia just to cast his ballot in person.

“I wanted to ensure that my vote was going to count for this election,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland is one of more than a dozen Americans who spoke to NBC News’ Social Newsgathering team about casting their ballots in person this year, as the U.S. is experiencing Covid-19 surges coupled with higher infection rates and controversy surrounding mail-in ballots. Forty-percent of voters said they would prefer to vote in person on Election Day, according to data released by the Pew Research Center in August. Meanwhile, 39 percent said they would prefer to vote by mail, and 18 percent said they would like to vote in person before Election Day.

“If it were any other year, I’d be really comfortable with voting with a mail-in ballot,” Kirkland, who’s voting in his first presidential election, said.

Kirkland said hearing the president’s false claims about mail-in ballots being subject to fraud was “extremely frustrating” and is what prompted him to fly home.

Though the president and officials have made false claims about the security of mail-in voting, a new Stanford University study on election outcomes found that a universal vote-by-mail policy doesn’t affect either party’s turnout or vote share.

Image: Jan Joseph
Jan Joseph of Minnesota requested a mail-in ballot but didn't receive it, so she decided to vote early, in person for this year's presidential election.Courtesy Jan Joseph

Jan Joseph, 65, is one of several Americans who is casting her ballot early and in person this year. Joseph, who lives in Minnesota, said she requested a mail-in ballot but didn’t receive it, so she went to an early voting location instead.

“I had voted absentee probably a few times in the past,” Joseph said. “And I thought this year would be a good year to do it that way, but then I became more and more anxious to vote and more and more anxious about the process and I thought sooner than later is better.”

College students often have the added barrier with in-person voting of not residing in the same town or even state where they are registered to vote. But concerns over absentee voting have driven some to make long trips to hit the polls early.

Meghan Smith, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, drove about nine hours to vote in-person in her hometown, Austin, Texas, last week. She never requested an absentee ballot—between her and her mother’s concerns about the postal service and her fear of making a minor error on her absentee ballot, Smith just felt more comfortable voting in-person.

“I felt like there was a lot to do and I felt like I would mess something up,” she said.

Though a group with historically low voting rates, college-aged turnout from the 2014 midterm election to the 2018 midterms more than doubled, from 19 to 40 percent, according to a 2019 study by Tufts University.

“Donald Trump was elected, and it was a shock. It was a shock to most of the United States, but it was a shock on college campuses,” said Nancy Thomas, the director of the Tufts University Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. “And people were not prepared for that outcome.”

Image: Meghan Smith
Meghan Smith, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, drove nearly nine hours from the University of Arkansas to Austin, TX to vote in-person with her mother last week. The finger coverings were used at their polling station in order to vote via touch screen.Courtesy Meghan Smith

Thomas cited the combination of Trump’s 2016 win and “a really energetic level of activism” around issues like gun violence and Black Lives Matter as two mobilizing factors for college voters in this election.

Abigail Bouve, a junior at the University of Arkansas who drove five hours back home to Memphis, Tennessee, is one of those people who knew she had to vote in-person following this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, mass furloughs and the Covid-19 health crisis.

“It just made people realize how important things actually are and how important it is to vote even though you're just one, it still counts,” she said.

Betsy Steele, 31, of Lewiston, Idaho, plans to vote in person this year after registering to vote for the first time.

“I'm ready to try to, I guess, have my voice be heard, the best that I can,” she said. “The only way I guess I can at the moment is by voting.”

Steele registered to vote after watching the first presidential debate. She said she was dismayed by President Donald Trump’s behavior and felt compelled “to do what I can to help get him out of the office.”

Fears over the integrity of voting by mail and voter suppression fueled Zane Smith’s decision to vote in person in his first presidential election. Smith, a sophomore at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said he drove 12 hours to vote in McKinney, Texas.

“My personal belief is that voting is one of the most powerful tools that we have as citizens,” Smith said. “And the fact that it's my first election that I get to be in that's one of the most important we've ever had, I would have done probably next to anything to be able to make it to vote.”