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“An Election Like No Other”: Boston College Braces for 2020 Presidential Election

With the United States just a day away from President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden facing off in one of the most unconventional presidential elections in modern American history, the political environment at Boston College has been “tense,” according to Vice President of Climate Justice at BC Audrey Kang.

“This is going to be an election like no other,” said Kang, MCAS ’22.

Emma Foley, a member of BC’s chapter of the conservative organization Network for Enlightened Women and CSOM ’22, expressed frustration with the political polarization that has grown over the past few election cycles. Foley said that it makes cross-spectrum political discussion on campus less common, as liberal students harass conservatives, preventing any constructive dialogue.

“Left-leaning students on campus, they love to mock us, ridicule us. They call us every -ism and -phobia in the book, and many of them don’t know who we are,” Foley said. “They’ve never sat down and had a conversation with us.”

According to a Heights analysis of public data from the Federal Elections Commission, the vast majority of employees at BC who donated to a political committee gave to Biden and other Democrats. These employees work a range of different jobs, including professors, graduate assistants, construction supervisors, and librarians.

The FEC reports all contributions from individuals who have contributed $200 or more to a political committee in an election cycle, as periodically reported to the FEC from political committees. 

According to public data from the beginning of 2019 through Oct. 14, 2020—the close of books for the Pre-General FEC Report—91 contributors who reported working at BC made 258 publicly listed contributions directly to Biden’s campaign committee. Across the same time period, four self-described BC employees made 20 contributions to Trump’s reelection committee.

Donations to Democrats as a whole show an even starker disparity—964 BC employees made more than 7,500 contributions to ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising platform. Across the same time period, 31 self-described BC employees made 84 contributions to WinRed, the Republican equivalent of ActBlue.

Left-leaning students on campus, they love to mock us, ridicule us. They call us every -ism and -phobia in the book.

BC political science professor R. Shep Melnick said that American citizens often don’t communicate with those from different social or political groups. Because of diminished across-the-aisle discourse, he said, people are less informed about stances from the other side.

“I will be the first to admit that I live in a bubble where I know very few people who support Trump,” Melnick said. “Why they’re doing so remains a bit of a mystery to me, and it would be beneficial for me to have more of a civil conversation with people who support Trump so I can understand them better, but that just doesn’t happen.”

Melnick said he believes that although politics has been greatly polarized for the last two decades, Trump has exacerbated this division. 

“My view is that the previous Republican presidents and Republican presidential candidates have all been pretty good people and pretty good leaders, and they’ve made some mistakes at times, but the difference in character between those previous Republicans and Trump is dramatic,” he said. “And people are responding to that.”

Annemarie Arnold, president of the anti-abortion group Boston College Students for Life and MCAS ’21, said that the general reception of conservative views varies widely. 

“On the one hand, you’ve got like the vicious commenting and dialogue that happens on the internet, but on the other hand, you have some very peaceable, unified, positive communication going on,” she said.

Since the 2020 presidential election is the first that many BC students are eligible to vote in, various offices and organizations across campus, such as the Undergraduate Government of BC, have been working to encourage political participation among students

“I think that should be the role of the student government,” said Christian Guma, UGBC president and CSOM ’21. “Everything we’ve done is not to push one side, it’s to get people engaged, and it’s to give people the opportunity to make their own choices.”

UGBC spent the months leading up to the election focusing on voter registration and civic engagement, hosting voter registration tables to inform students on how to register to vote. In recent weeks, the organization focused on informing voters about candidates by providing pamphlets with information pulled directly from each candidate’s website, according to Guma.

“I think it’s important for everybody to have a say in our democracy and in our political process,” Guma said. “I think the more voices the better, and it’s part of being an American. … We’re afforded the right to freely vote and freely express ourselves, and I think we have the chance to use it. We should.”

College Democrats of BC has been gearing up for the election by holding weekly meetings, hosting debate watches virtually and in-person, and helping students register to vote, according to one member, Colleen McBride, MCAS ’23.

“[We] did have voter registration earlier this month, where people were out on the quad encouraging people to get registered and registering people who hadn’t registered yet,” McBride said.

BC College Republicans did not respond to inquiries from The Heights.

Katie Dalton, director of the Women’s Center, said that BC’s Civic Engagement Committee, of which she is a co-chair, placed an emphasis on encouraging students to vote, such as by setting up large signs across campus encouraging voting and handing out “I Voted” stickers at campus mailbox locations.

“We want to encourage and celebrate students for practicing their civic duty,” Dalton said.

Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation Tom Mogan said he has been impressed by the activism among students, particularly through participation in events hosted by the Forum on Racial Justice, including a Solidarity Walk last week, which aimed to engage student organizations in the work of the forum.

“Active participation in civic life on the part of college students is important to their own growth and development but is also critically important in shaping our nation’s future,” Mogan said in an email to The Heights

Political science professor David Hopkins said that the current polarization within the United States could lead to incredibly high turnout in the 2020 election.

“I think there’s more interest in this election, just generally in America than in most elections, and the participation rate is likely to be high,” Hopkins said. “In fact, maybe even historically high.”

Chinenye Ugocha, director of AHANA+ Leadership Council and MCAS ’21, said that she is excited about youth voter participation. 

“It’s really encouraging to see more voter turnout and, more especially youth voting, because before, our age demographic is usually the one that’s been kind of left out in the polls because we don’t come out to vote,” Ugocha said.

I’m trying not to get my hopes up. I’m trying not to resort my mental state to just envisioning the impending doom.

There were many issues that BC students kept in mind while casting their ballots, including health care, climate change, abortion, and LGBTQ+ rights.

“I think the two candidates on top of the two major tickets … present radically different visions on both sides for where the nation should go,” said Dennis Wieboldt, a UGBC representative and MCAS ’22.

Shriya Srikanth, CSOM and MCAS ’23, said the decision of who to vote for was easy, as she agrees with Biden’s policy plans and disagrees with Trump on a moral level.

Though Foley declined to share which presidential candidate she supported, she said that she prioritized “pro-life” issues and that the candidates’ starkly contrasting stances on abortion made the choice easy.

“You have Miley Cyrus on Instagram holding a cake, celebrating abortion, and then [on the other side] you have Mother Teresa, and I’d rather be on Mother Teresa’s side anytime,” Foley said. 

Alexandra Katz, a UGBC representative and Lynch ’23, said she is voting by mail and is registered in her home state of New York. She said she will be voting for Biden primarily because she believes in harm reduction. 

“I was thinking about a lot of the frankly racist statements that our president has currently made, and has made in the past,” Katz said. “… In my personal opinion, this election was choosing whichever was the lesser of two evils, and I do think that there was a very, very clear option, or a clear answer.”

For some, the names on the ticket are not necessarily the most important aspect of the election.

“I’m looking at it as not really voting for Biden—I’m voting for the cabinet,” said Christie Louis, a member of the AHANA+ Leadership Council and MCAS ’24. “I’m not voting for him necessarily, but I’m voting for the people that I hope he surrounds himself with.”

Wieboldt, who dropped his ballot off at a dropbox in his home state of New Jersey, said he considered issues related to health care, climate change, and economics when casting his ballot.

“I mean we’re all in college now. Eventually we’ll be out of college, whether or not we’ll have a job and a good-paying job when we come out,” he said. “I think voting for the candidate who you think has the better economic vision is something that will be on students’ minds, and I know it was on mine when I voted.”

James Mazareas, a graduate student and member of the Young Democratic Socialists of BC, said that he will likely reluctantly end up voting for Biden, who he sees as the lesser of two evils. Because of his disillusionment with the two parties, Mazareas said he understands people who choose not to vote at all.

“Obviously, the Trump administration has been terrible on [LGBTQ+ issues] and rolling back protections for queer and trans people,” Mazareas said. “There’s a lot of cases where Biden isn’t perfect, or not good at all, but he is sort of better than Trump. And so it’s difficult I think for a lot of people to balance those two things.”

Philip Landrigan, the director of the Global Public Health Program at BC, said that he is also voting with climate change in mind, and he is hoping for a Biden administration that reverses the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental and occupational policies.

“My great hope is that there’ll be a change of administration, and that the new administration will pay attention to the science and work diligently to restore occupational and environmental safeguards that save lives and boost the economy,” he said.

At the debate watch parties hosted by the College Democrats of BC, McBride said that there was a general consensus among the club that environmental issues were not discussed as much as they should have been during the debates.

“There was that frustrating part of the vice presidential debate where Kamala and Mike Pence were both like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to ban fracking, we’re not going to ban fracking,’” McBride said. “And a lot of people in the club were kind of like, ‘You know, I wish there was more progressive environmental legislation.’” 

Despite this frustration, McBride said club members agreed that if Biden wins the election, there will be a change for the better regarding environmental policy. 

A main goal of CJBC is for BC to divest from fossil fuels, but according to Kang, this is difficult to achieve when the president actively denies science and the need for urgent climate action.

“It’s really hard to set this example of divestment if the president finds that climate change is a hoax, [and] he has said that,” she said. “It’s really, really hard to have BC make this example if the whole political realm is like, ‘Well, climate change isn’t even real.’”

Katz said her plans for election night are to take care of herself, because whatever the results are, she’s going to be feeling a ton of emotions.

“I think that everybody should kind of try to look out for themselves in all ways that they can this week, whether that means taking a break from social media outlets, or news coverage, or taking a quick schoolwork break, or getting to bed early or something—anything like that, just to preserve mental health and sanity in any way possible,” she said. 

I assume there’s going to be lots of very strong feelings when this election is over, on both sides, and the losing side is going to be very unhappy.

The Office of Health Promotion will be holding in-person drop in sessions in the Health Hub in Gasson 013 from Wednesday through Friday. These sessions will allow students to gather and discuss the results of the election with their peers and receive support from the OHP staff members who will be present.

To cap off their efforts to increase political involvement among BC students, UGBC and the Civic Engagement Committee will pass out “I Voted” stickers on Election Day, and Guma is looking to host constructive conversations about politics after the election.

Beyond encouraging students to vote, Dalton said that the Civic Engagement Committee was working on ways to support students who are feeling stressed or anxious about the election. She explained that the committee plans to release a list on Monday of every event taking place across campus designed to assist students coping with election results.

“What we decided was the best route to go was to reach out to different departments and divisions all over campus,” Dalton said. “To pull together a list of every event that’s happening across campus, so that students can start to prepare and have a strategy for who they’re going to engage with and who they feel they can get support from.”

Katz said there is no candidate who she believes is going to win by a landslide, because anything can happen on election night or in the ensuing weeks. 

“[In 2016] I was certainly not expecting the outcome that emerged. I am trying not to hedge my bets. I’m trying not to get my hopes up,” Katz said. “I’m trying not to resort my mental state to just envisioning the impending doom.”

Hopkins similarly declined to offer any predictions for what will happen on Election Day, and he warned of the consequences of the high emotions he expects to arise regardless of the outcome.

“I assume there’s going to be lots of very strong feelings when this election is over, on both sides, and the losing side is going to be very unhappy,” Hopkins said. “And that is going to take multiple forms. It could take the form of protest. It could take other forms.”

Mazareas cautioned Biden supporters against the assumption that the Democratic candidate is going to win by a landslide. 

“I think everyone sort of assumes Biden’s going to win,” Mazareas said. “And I think I fell into that trap, but I think Trump could very easily pull it out and only because of voter suppression. … In a perfect world, with a free and open election, I think Biden would win, but I don’t think we can assume that’s going to happen at all, so no, I really wouldn’t be surprised if Trump won.”

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor

November 2, 2020