For out-of-town college students, act of voting is its own statement

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 26, 2020 9:05 AM CT | Published: October 26, 2020 4:00 AM CT

This isn’t a political story. That’s not true. It is a political story. But it’s not that kind of political story.

First balloting in presidential election begins this week

There is no agenda here — hidden or otherwise. This is just a story about students wanting to vote in the 2020 Presidential Election, being away at college, and waiting for their absentee ballots to arrive -- an assurance that is the equivalent of hearing “the check is in the mail.”

But more than that, it is a story about young Americans wanting to be involved in the process during a particularly toxic political season when it would be difficult to blame them for tapping out.

“I just want to exercise my civic duty like anyone else, you know?” said Andrew Zimmerman, a Memphian and sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington who spent weeks waiting for his absentee ballot to arrive in the mail, finally getting it Friday, Oct. 16.

To cast a vote is a simple desire. A basic right.

And it was easy enough to do 12 years ago for Jennifer Less, Zimmerman’s mother, when she took her then-8-year-old son with her to vote in the presidential election that ushered Barack Obama into the White House.

“She took me inside the voting booth with the curtain and showed me all the candidates and what she was doing,” Zimmerman said. “It sparked an intrigue in me.”

Said Mom: “We talked about politics at the dinner table all through his teenage years.”

But for Zimmerman and other college students from Shelby County voting absentee in 2020, there have been complications (more on that in a few moments).

Meantime, in the spirit of democracy as transparency, it must be stated that the students in this story, and their families, do have their own, strong-held, political beliefs. 

Early voting near 200,000 mark with one week in pre-election day period

In part, the students have come by theirs honestly, as the saying goes. This is because they grew up under a particular political banner much the way one grows up under the flag of a sports team and pledges allegiance to, say, Tiger Nation.

What do you mean Derrick Rose might not have taken his own SAT in Detroit!

So, yes, partisanship sometimes reflects a degree of groupthink. But it is also a warm blanket on a cold night. 

“My family’s originally from New York. All the way back to my great-grandfather, we’re Yankees fans, repping Yankees,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the law of the land in our house.

Election Commission clears backlog of absentee ballot requests

“My family will respect you for who you are (no matter your political beliefs), but if you walk in wearing a Red Sox cap or a Big Papi (David Ortiz) jersey …”

You are the wrong side of a hard, pinstriped, line.

‘In the mail’

Jennifer Less is probably more passionate about her politics than her baseball.

And Tracy O’Connor, whose son Alexander is a freshman at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, views her political partisanship as the starting point for considering all candidates.

A few weeks ago, these two moms became concerned that their respective sons had not received their absentee ballots. Their boys’ first chance to vote in a presidential election — and yes, the moms go with the party line that the stakes could not be higher — was at risk.

“Kids from other states and other counties in Tennessee were getting their ballots and had them for weeks,” Tracy said.

Her son, Alexander O’Connor, finally received his ballot last week.

Well before then, Jennifer Less had pretty much launched her own investigation. She called the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEE). She says someone there directed her to the state office, where another voice over the phone redirected her back to Shelby County authorities.

Contacted by The Daily Memphian, Suzanne Thompson, a PR consultant who works for the SCEE, relayed the following statement from Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips about the initial mailing out of absentee ballots:

“We’re hearing from voters that they have not received their ballots, but we are showing that they have been mailed, so they are in the hands of the postal system at this point.”

Thompson said SCEE received 1,391 requests for absentee ballots from college students or spouses of college students.

Before Zimmerman received his ballot, his mother was trying to follow the process on a state government Web site.

Thompson said the state’s ballot tracker, located at, “lags at least one day behind; recently, we’ve noticed it’s a little farther behind.”

Federal appeals court upholds signature verification law for absentee ballots

Less said she didn’t understand why the ballots would be so late going out, given her understanding the slate was set in August.

“Candidates were certified on Aug. 25,” Thompson said. “But the deadline for candidates to withdraw was the 27th … the ballot has state candidates on it, too. The state candidates were certified Sept. 3, so we couldn’t do anything with the ballot until after the state certification.”

O’Connor, who like Zimmerman is a Democrat and has worked for party-affiliated organizations at various times, ran a voter registration drive at Central High School, where Alexander graduated.

Tracy O’Connor does not believe there was anything nefarious at play in Shelby County. But that doesn’t make her feel any better about the delay in the absentee ballots reaching college students.

“She’s not the same party I am, but I know Linda Phillips personally and I have to believe she wouldn’t do anything (to interfere) with anyone’s right to vote,” O’Connor said.

“I do think the Election Commission could use more resources. After the election, we do need to find out what happened and how to fix it.”

Absentee votes will complicate election night returns

For absentee ballots to count, they must be received by Election Day, Nov. 3.

“Don’t wait,” Thompson said, stressing the ballots should be mailed as soon as possible. “We’re concerned we won’t get the ballots back.”

Just a ‘phase’

Jennifer Less was in the minority.

“My family’s Jewish, always were sort of liberal Democrats growing up in a Republican community,” said Less, who lives in East Memphis now. “I was the only child I knew who grew up in Germantown and transferred into Memphis public schools.”

She graduated White Station High School and the first presidential election in which she cast a vote was 1988 for Democrat Michael Dukakis, who won 111 electoral votes to George Bush’s 426. Since then, she has several times served as a poll worker during elections.

Less said she was passionate about her politics in her formative voting years, “But not as much as I am now.”

A particularly difficult time for her? When Andrew was in high school, she detected a change.

“You know how kids rebel?” she asked. “His turn at rebellion was going through a ‘Republican phase.’”

Said the rebel with an evolving cause: “I had a feeling that might come up. She thinks it’s a rebellious nature, but I don’t think the shift is as radical as she thinks. My whole family leans pretty far left. Your political opinion and who you are is manifested by how you see the world. It was a matter of more maturity.

“The shift right might be exaggerated. I consider myself a centrist if anything. I don’t want to claim a side. I really am a completely non-partisan voter. Socially, I lean left. Economically, I lean right.”

Election Commission clears backlog of absentee ballot requests

He says he’s voting for Joe Biden over President Donald Trump not because he’s a “hardline” Biden supporter, but rather in a quest for “a sense of normalcy.”

Sanctity of the vote

Tracy O’Connor is an administrator for Together We Will West Tennessee, a Facebook group that splintered off from Pantsuit Nation, another Facebook group that, as the name implies, backed Hillary Clinton for President in 2016.

O’Connor notes that her son is an Eagle Scout — she says it with pride — and that he sees voting as his duty.

But he has his own mind. She’s proud of that, too, if perhaps fighting some feelings of frustration.

“He refuses to align himself with anyone’s party,” she said.

Alexander, 18, says this is true. He also credits Mom and Dad for his love of history. So, he’s a product of their environment. He’s also in a new environment at UT-Knoxville.

“As a teenager in college, you have a lot of cynicism toward the establishment by nature,” he said.

The Democratic and Republican parties do not impress him —neither does America’s two-party system — and that is just the start of it: “Neither candidate really suits my fancy.”

His friends back home in “blue” Memphis, he says, are voting for Biden, but their hearts aren’t in it.

“They see him as a better alternative to Trump. Might be true. Might not be true.”

At UT, he lives in a “red” world.

“A lot of people are on the Trump train — Trump flags in my dorm. But that’s Knoxville and a lot of people are from rural areas.”

His vote didn’t go to either major party candidate, but to an alternative option on the ballot.

“I’d rather keep that private,” he said. “Privacy in elections is very important.”

Among the other options on the Tennessee ballot: Libertarian Jo Jorgensen, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and Independent/rapper Kanye West. Alexander sent his mom a meme implying that the latter was his choice for President.

“She said something like, ‘You won’t have a house if you do that.’”

He didn’t do that, but in 2020 is any vote for any candidate more unbelievable than any other?

In 2020, when so many of us are divided by so much, isn’t the act of voting the higher calling?

And ultimately, more important than who receives that vote?

“At the base of any democracy is the right to vote,” 20-year-old Andrew Zimmerman said last week, before he was able to cast his. “Getting the ballot out should be a priority.

“I was just happy to hear my ballot’s in the mail.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


2020 Elections Linda Phillips absentee voting college students Alex O'Connor Tracy O'Connor Jennifer Less Andrew Zimmerman
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


Want to comment on our stories or respond to others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only paid subscribers can add their thoughts or upvote/downvote comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here