It was the Monday night before Election Day when Hannah Tindall made what she thought would be taken as a joke while discussing with friends the fate of her home state, Pennsylvania — sure to be a toss-up, if not the determining factor — in the coming days' election.
Tindall, 22, a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, was dejected after two failed attempts to send her absentee ballot to Pennsylvania, where she's registered to vote, had left her on the sidelines of what could be one the most consequential elections of her lifetime.
It was then, while sitting in her Atlanta apartment with three friends, that she proposed the unthinkable: What if they drove 800 miles from Atlanta to Harleysville, Pennsylvania, where she could vote in person?
"My friends were like 'we could totally do that,'" Tindall said.
And they totally did.
They packed themselves into a Honda Accord, and by 10:30 p.m. they'd taken off into the night.
When Tindall first got her absentee ballot weeks previously, she filled it out, put in into the security envelope and sealed it. She was just about ready to put it in the mail when she realized she'd made a mistake and needed to open it again.
"It was, like, totally torn," she said of the security envelope. "I didn't open it cleanly at all."
Tindall said that, fearing the ballot would be considered invalid or suspected as being fraudulent by Montgomery County election officials, she requested a new security envelope. She waited and waited, but nothing. Nearly a week before the election, Tindall's hope for casting a vote in Pennsylvania was dwindling.
"I didn't really have the time to order a new security envelope," she said. "So I just kind of gave up on my vote for the time being."
That night with her friends, she called her county's election office. No answer. Could she just mail in the torn one, maybe if she taped it up a bit? An elections hotline she called suggested that the damage to the security envelope would risk the ballot's being denied.
And so it was decided. "We're college students, we're mostly online, so it was a chance for an adventure," Tindall said.
They alternated driving shifts every three hours. By 11 a.m., they'd arrived at her polling location in Montgomery County.
"It was wild," Tindall said. "We didn't sleep much the whole time, but I think it was worth it."
She was greeted by her parents, who voted with her.
Although she isn't sure her one vote will make much of a difference, Tindall said it's about the principle.
"It's such a great privilege to be able to choose the leaders of our country," she said. "It's just very important for college students, especially in a demographic where we don't usually vote, to just stand up and do it."
She added, "And it was really cool to just be able to see my parents and tell them the crazy story of how we got there."
Stories like Tindall's are taking shape all across the country. In an election with fervent voter enthusiasm during a pandemic that has led to widespread and unprecedented use of absentee ballots, voters went to great lengths to ensure that their votes were received on time and counted.
Claudia Alonso, 31, said she arrived at Miami International Airport determined. The three-hour flight was an inconvenience, and the $400 she spent on the plane ticket an even greater one, but voting, Alonso said, has always been special to her.
"Growing up, my mom always told me: 'In Cuba, we couldn't vote. This is why we're here. This is why we're in America,'" she said.
Alonso, an e-commerce manager, made the journey from Brooklyn, New York, to Miami after, she said, she had waited months for an absentee ballot that never arrived.
Alonso, a Brooklyn resident for about a year with a permanent residence in Florida, is still registered to vote in Miami-Dade County, and so, in September, she decided to vote with an absentee ballot, thinking the process wouldn't be cumbersome.
She was wrong.
Weeks after she printed, signed and mailed her affidavit for an absentee ballot request, the Miami-Dade Elections Department told her that there was no record of her request. By then, it was early October, and the clock was ticking.
"Do I have enough time to do this?" Alonso said she asked the Elections Department on the phone.
The department reassured her. There was still time. All she had to do was request a new absentee ballot, and she could do so over email.
"Why wasn't my first instruction to email them?" Alonso asked, describing the printing and mailing of the request in the first place as "antiquated." "This is 2020, and even though the year's been upside down, our technology isn't."
Over the next two weeks, she said, she made it her routine to check her mail every day after work. And day after day, the routine ended in disappointment. As the days carried on, the disappointment turned to contempt.
"At this point, I lost faith in two government-run institutions: the Department of Elections and the United States Postal Service," Alonso said.
It was one week before Election Day when she made her game plan while at work.
"I said: 'If I get home today and I haven't received my ballot, I'm going to book a ticket and go home. I'm going to go to Miami and vote,'" Alonso said.
When Alonso arrived home that evening to no ballot, she said, she ate dinner, called her family in Miami to let them know she was coming home and booked her flight.
She flew to Miami on Friday at 6:30 a.m., by 9:30 a.m., she'd arrived at the airport, and by 10:30 a.m. she was at the Elections Department casting her vote, she said.
Alonso said that when she voted, she remembered her grandparents.
"My grandparents left Cuba in the early 1960s in the revolution when all their rights were taken away from them," Alonso said. "If I would have sat this one out, I would have been doing my grandparents a dishonor and a disservice. It was my ultimate love letter in a way to my great grandparents."
Dallas Haselhuhn, 24, said he drove nine hours Sunday night before taking a break. Then, on Monday, he drove seven. And Tuesday, four.
He was making his way to Plymouth, Michigan, a suburb 10 miles west of Detroit where he has a permanent residence, from Colorado, where he works as a fisheries and wildlife biologist. The trip was 1,200 miles.
"I was told that my signature didn't match what they had on record," said Haselhuhn, who requested an absentee ballot to vote in Michigan, where he's originally from. He was denied his absentee ballot in early September after his signature failed to match what the county had on file, and he was told by his county's clerk that he'd need to come in person to resolve the issue.
"I'm a field-going biologist, so I'm outside all the time," said Haselhuhn, who said that he interacts with a lot of people because of his job and that he worried about his parents.
"They're older, and I didn't want to spend too much time with them," he said.
But voting wasn't something Haselhuhn was willing to give up on, especially in this election.
"It matters a lot to me," he said, "given my field and my background as a scientist. I have my own personal reasons to vote."
He decided to drive instead of fly, as he'd be less exposed to other people. And in the two weeks before his trip, he worked from home.
"I was trying to limit my exposure as much as possible for my parents," he said.
On the Sunday night before Election Day, he hit the road in his Subaru Forester and stopped in Omaha, Nebraska, and Munster, Indiana, along the way to rest. He said he arrived in Michigan around noon on Election Day and went straight to the county clerk's office. He said that it took him about an hour and half to sort through the issues and that by 1:30 p.m., he was at his polling location voting.
"It was actually really nice," Haselhuhn said. "I was surprised, because normally our polling station gets pretty busy. I walked straight in, and it was fine."
Haselhuhn said he realizes that what almost stopped him from voting could very easily stop others.
"I know not everyone can drive 1,200 miles. I'm extremely lucky to be able to do that," he said. "I wanted to make sure that I could cast my vote as easily as I can, because I know there's going to be people that aren't able to do that, that are going to face a lot more barriers, as it were, than I am."