Election week at the University: high stakes atmosphere can be felt across campus

Students+stand+in+line+to+vote+at+the+Illini+Union+polling+place+on+Tuesday.

Ryan Ash

Students stand in line to vote at the Illini Union polling place on Tuesday.

By Matt Troher, Longform Assistant Editor

Tuesday, Oct. 27: It’s a cold, overcast day in Champaign. It rained for a short while and the cold air still lingers, forcing students to turn on their heaters for the first time this school year. 

Perhaps Champaign’s weather is somehow influenced by another shift — albeit an ideological one, taking place some 680 miles away, in Washington, D.C., where judge Amy Coney Barret was confirmed as the most recent Justice of the Supreme Court.

Barret’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been the subject of much political debate, occurring just eight days before the election. Those on the right view Barrett’s confirmation as a win for conservative thought, specifically pro-life advocates. Those on the left, however, view her confirmation as the result of an illegitimate push to pack the Supreme Court with conservative justices before a potential transfer of power. 

“I don’t agree with the confirmation in the Supreme Court, mainly because of the precedent set in 2016,” said Amelia Chavez, freshman in LAS. “McConnel said that Obama couldn’t appoint a Supreme Court justice until after the election, and somehow that just doesn’t matter now.”

It’s election week in Champaign, and you can feel it in the air.

It’s difficult to walk around campus without a reminder of the election. Posters urging students to vote line the windows of Campustown businesses. A cluster of campaign signs sits on the northeast corner of the Main Quad, right in front of the Illini Union, where early voting has occurred since Oct. 19. 

Clusters of campaign signs speckle the Main Quad. (Matt Troher)

Reminders of the election even extend to the digital world, where social media campaigns to get out and vote are at the top of every newsfeed. The constant reminder coupled with the high stakes of the election can be felt across the student body.

“I feel like a lot of people that I talk to are kind of walking on eggshells,” said Tyler Swanson, senior in ACES. “The general feeling I have is a feeling of tension and nervousness, and hopefully that goes away the day after the election’s over or the week after the election is over. But until then I think everybody’s on the edge of their seats watching to see what’s going to happen.”

Swanson spends a lot of his time thinking about politics. He’s the president of the Political Discussion club (formerly the Political Science club prior to a name change), political director for the Illini Democrats, a senator in the Illinois Student Government and hosts a political podcast called “The Bi-Partisan” with three of his friends. The Daily Illini reached out to the Illini Republicans twice by email, but did not get a response for a comment.

Understandably, the election weighs heavy on Swanson’s mind. But the election isn’t just something for politically-minded people to pay attention to. Even those who don’t regularly keep up with updates in the political world cannot look away.

Jacob Berry, junior in Business, is not the most politically-minded person. Admittedly, he spends most of his time studying or hanging out with friends instead of thinking about politics. Still, the magnitude of the presidential election is so far-reaching, even the layman cannot escape being engaged. 

“I definitely think this election will make or break the next four years,” Berry said. “The social and economic impacts that are going to occur over the next four years, especially because of the recent Supreme Court nomination that just took place will help define our nation, for better or for worse.”

College campuses are known for being politically charged hotspots. The 2020 presidential election is perhaps the most consequential presidential election in students’s lifetimes. The vast majority of college students are voting in a presidential election for the first time; we can’t hug our friends; protests have swept the streets of our country since June; the President has said he will refuse to leave office if he loses, citing the perceived illegitimacy of mail-in ballots that are crucial for so many of our immunocompromised citizens to exercise their right to vote. 

Election week is upon Champaign-Urbana, and it is certain to be a long one.

 

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Thursday, Oct. 29. The cold front has yet to leave Champaign, and a gust of wind has joined forces to make the weather all the more disagreeable. With a minimal amount of classes taking place in person, the Main Quad is emptier than usual. No more than 15 students walk its length at a given time. Those who do are bundled up in as much fall apparel as they own, delaying the donning of their winter coats for as long as possible.

Despite the unpleasant weather, a group of students station themselves on the walkways dividing the Main Quad. 

These students are members of Students for Environmental Concerns, an RSO dedicated to environmental activism. The group of roughly eight students spread themselves across the Main Quad, armed with pastel chalk, and began etching various quotes from President Donald Trump about the environment. Shallon Malfeo, sophomore in LAS, took part in the chalking to raise awareness about the disparity between the two candidates’ plans regarding the environment.

One of President Donald Trump’s quotes about the environment sit etched into the sidewalk with chalk on the Main Quad. (Matt Troher)

“I don’t think Trump even believes that (climate change is) a human-caused issue,” Malfeo said. “That in itself is problematic. Biden, on the other hand, does have a comprehensive plan to combat climate change. He’s planning on investing about $2 trillion into climate action. I think that’s a big step forward, and hopefully, it will get the ball rolling in the right direction.”

Stationed on the southwest portion of the Main Quad just in front of Lincoln Hall, Malfeo braved the weather to spread her message. With pink, purple and white chalk, she scrolled a quote from Donald Trump taken from an interview with Fox and Friends. 

Bluntly stating his views on climate change, the quote read: “I am not a believer in man-made climate change.”

Despite the cold weather approaching Champaign dredging up not-all-that-distant memories of a sweltering summer, this year may very well be the coolest year for the foreseeable future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated: “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” with the effects of climate change beginning to be felt from wildfires in Australia and California, to droughts plaguing the Southwest United States. 

Although there remains overwhelming evidence that man-made climate change exists, the two candidates’ attitudes toward climate change cannot be more different. Biden’s campaign has pledged to push the United States towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, while Trump plans to continue rolling back Democratic environmental regulations. With climate change rapidly increasing in recent years, coupled with limited time to act before it’s too late, has made the climate a priority issue for many voters this election. 

“Climate change is a big concern for me,” Malfeo said. “I see that affecting everything from our health care to racism (to) poverty — you name it. Everything has to do with the climate, essentially. If we can’t support the wellbeing of the Earth, how can we possibly support ourselves?”

“If we can’t support the wellbeing of the Earth, how can we possibly support ourselves?”

Two more students from SECS are stationed at the northwest corner of the Main Quad, in front of the Illini Union and next to the cluster of campaign signs, chalk in hand. Bob Chen and Victoria Casey are working together to share their message on the Main Quad. Written in bright green lettering is the phrase, “Let your voice be heard,” repeated down the walkway. 

The two students took to the Main Quad to spread their message to express their support for Joe Biden, who they believe has a stronger plan for the environment than Donald Trump.

“(Of the two candidates,) one believes in science, one does not,” Casey said. “Although Biden isn’t exactly where we want him to be in terms of being radical for the environment, he does have the most comprehensive plan. He’s working with people like representative Alexandrea Ocasio-Cortez who created the Green New Deal that actually addresses climate change, and he’s working to solve it while keeping in mind the economy.”

With the election five days away, the two students appeared nervous about how election night will pan out. When asked about how he thinks the night will turn out, Chen winced. “Oh man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to watch.” 

Casey appeared more optimistic than her friend, expressing a sense of concern for the voters.

“Hopefully, everyone who goes out to vote is able to do so in an efficient manner, and they’re not waiting in long lines across the Nation, and there won’t be any fear mongering or anyone intimidating them out of voting,” Casey said. “I hope that they can count all the ballots that are mailed in as they’re coming in. Hopefully it turns out for the people, and no one else.”

 

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Months before campaign signs for the presidential election appeared in Champaign-Urbana, protest signs were a common sight. Slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” and “No justice, no peace,” filled the air through chants, as well as displayed on signs placed in yards and the windows of businesses.

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Office Derick Chuvin sparked a summer of mass protests. The streets of every major U.S. city were filled with protesters marching against police brutality and systemic racism. Numerous activists called for an emphasis on education regarding the history of systemic racism in America. 

Protests began in the Champaign-Urbana area soon after initial protests broke out in Minneapolis. On June 1, thousands of peaceful protesters marched from the Champaign County Courthouse to the Champaign Police Department. Once the school year began and students returned to Champaign, another protest, led by Illinois athletes, took place across campus on Aug. 31.

The early weeks of these protests were marked by the visceral reaction of the Black community to another display of police brutality, and precipitated a cultural reckoning on racial injustice. The night after a video of Floyd’s murder went viral, the Minneapolis skyline was awash in a thin orange haze caused by the burning of various businesses and buildings.

As the summer progressed, the protests spread from major cities into suburban America, and eventually small towns far from any urban area.

Although the Black Lives Matters movement has been around since 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the movement reached a new hight of national attention due to their response to Floyd’s murder. The movement and its supporters called for the defunding of police and the recognition of systemic racism from lawmakers. 

As with most cultural movements, the Black Lives Matters movement quickly became a matter of nationwide political debate. The impact of the protests led to a cultural dialogue about systemic racism and police accountability spearheaded by the left and pushed back against by the right.  The impact of the past few months regarding the Black Lives Matters protests weighs heavily in the minds of voters, bringing the issues of racism and police reform into the voting booth.

Marihah Muhsinah, senior in LAS, serves as the Vice President of the Underrepresented Muslims and Minority Advocates at the University. Musinah believes Trump has been actively harmful to minorities throughout his tenure as president, and that Biden’s campaign is a step in the right direction to help marginalized groups.

“I’m a Muslim woman; I wear a headscarf; I’m a person of color,” Muhsinah said. “The past four years have made it abundantly clear that Trump is not a good president for minorities, and also for women. Now, more than ever, it is crucial for us to exercise our right to vote and elect someone who has chosen a woman of color for his VP.”

“I’m a Muslim woman; I wear a headscarf; I’m a person of color,” Muhsinah said. “The past four years have made it abundantly clear that Trump is not a good president for minorities, and also for women. Now, more than ever, it is crucial for us to exercise our right to vote and elect someone who has chosen a woman of color for his VP.”

Madison Jackson, senior in LAS studying political science and African American studies, serves as the Director of Governmental Affairs for Illinois Student Government. For Jackson, racism and classism are two inextricably linked issues that influence her political attitudes.

“I’d say classism and racism are two issues that deeply correlate with each other,” Jackson said. “A lot of inner city communities are deprived of necessary educational and economic resources to be able to succeed in a capitalist society. It’s a huge issue because not everyone understands the particular issues with capitalism, and even then, people like to put a particular color blindness on it.”

“I’d say classism and racism are two issues that deeply correlate with each other,” Jackson said. “A lot of inner city communities are deprived of necessary educational and economic resources to be able to succeed in a capitalist society. It’s a huge issue because not everyone understands the particular issues with capitalism, and even then, people like to put a particular color blindness on it.”

Following the summer focusing on political and cultural issues, Illinois Student Government approached the school year with plans on educating the campus community on various issues. ISG has hosted three “teach-ins” led by members and community activists so far this year, with plans on hosting more following the election.

Planned by Jackson, as well as ISG Vice-President Christopher Ackerman-Avila, Chair of Community and Governmental Affairs Nataly Esparza, and Student Senator for LAS Tyeese Braslavsky, ISG partnered with other social justice organizations for their teach-ins. So far, ISG has partnered with the Illinois Coalition Assisting Undocumented Students’ Education for an immigration ally training, Students for Environmental Concerns for a lesson on fossil-fuels and the Students for Justice in Palestine for a discussion about divestment.

Ezparza, senior in LAS, spent the past few days in Pennsylvania canvassing for Joe Biden as a part of the “Take Back Philly Campaign,” tentatively helping ISG remotely through zoom. Pennsylvania is a key battleground state, with Biden leading Trump by roughly 5 percentage points in national polling. Her involvement with the ISG teach-ins, as well as experiencing what the past few months in America has had to offer, highlighted her dissatisfaction with the Trump administration.

“Throughout the entire year, we’ve had a pandemic to deal with, we’ve had the Black Lives Matters movement, we’ve seen so many examples as to how the system is broken and how it needs fixing,” Esparza said. “I really don’t think that the current administration is doing a good job handling anything that has been happening or focusing on any important issues.”

In addition to their teach-in series, ISG instituted a series of marches to the polls to encourage students to take advantage of early voting. Starting Oct. 29, ISG allowed RSOs and individual students to register to meet up at designated locations across campus, from Alma Mater to Pennsylvania Avenue Residence Halls, to walk together to the Illini Union to vote. ISG plans to hold these marches every day until the polls close Tuesday evening.

On Oct. 30, a small group of students gathered by Alma Mater, quietly and inconspicuously. They waited a few minutes for any stragglers, and as quietly as they came, they departed for the short walk to the Illini Union to cast their vote. With only four days until Election Day, ISG sees any vote cast as a win for democracy.

The students leave the Illini Union after casting their votes. On their way across the Main Quad, they pass a bench in front of Noyes Laboratory with three impactful letters that have been repeated time and time again this summer spray painted on top: “BLM.”

 

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Saturday, Oct. 31: The sun peeked out for seemingly the first time in months, even if it’s only been a few days. The warmth from the sun’s arrival has led to an increased number of students on the Main Quad. A vast majority of these students are wearing costumes. It’s Halloween, afterall. 

But the celebration of the holiday is underlined with a sense of unease. COVID-19 cases are on the rise, with Illinois reaching an all-time high of single-day cases yesterday with 8,519 new instances. Costumed students sit on the Main Quad in circles with ample distance between them, adhering to social distancing guidelines. Many political analysts are predicting election night will bring along civil unrest, and downtown Washington, D.C. businesses have begun boarding up their windows citing rioting concerns.

The sidewalks lining the Main Quad are not just busier with foot traffic. More sidewalk chalkings have appeared, all of which pertaining to the election. On one of the footpaths crossing the Main Quad, there’s a chalk drawing of a character from the popular video game “Among Us,” in which players have to vote out the fellow player they think is assigned the role of imposter. The character is labeled Rodney Davis, with the surrounding bubble-letter text reading: “Vote the imposter out.”

Some of these newly appeared chalkings pertain to the congressional election for Illinois’ 13th congressional district between incumbent Republican Rodney Davis, and Democrat Betsy Dirksen-Londrigan. A few simple “Vote for Betsy” drawings line the sidewalk, accompanied by the rhyming “Betsy 2020.” Londrigan lost the election against Davis in 2018 by less than 2,000 votes. 

Other phrases written in chalk are more humorous. One phrase reads: “Real women settle for Joe Biden,” written in stylized characters. This references a popular TikTok, in which three southern women harmonize as they sing: “Real women vote for Trump.” Another stakes a claim not based in fact: “Rodney Davis hates cats.” Nonetheless, this elicits a chuckle from a student walking over the writing. 

More chalkings advocating for Betsy Londrigan appear in front of the Illini Union, more casual and aimed at resonating with college students than any official campaign material. “Baddies for Betsy,” takes up an entire tile of walkway. Inside a heart pierced by an arrow is the phrase “Rodney Loves Trump.” In front of the English Building sits the assertion, “Rodney Votes w/ Trump 91% of the Time,” a true claim supported by congressional voting records.

A lone opposition chalker scribbles the phrase “Vote for Rodney Davis,” attempting to combat the vast presence of pro-Betsy chalkings. A short while later, a student adds a modifier to the beginning of the phrase — “Don’t.”

A lone opposition chalker scribbles the phrase “Vote for Rodney Davis,” attempting to combat the vast presence of pro-Betsy chalkings. A short while later, a student adds a modifier to the beginning of the phrase — “Don’t.”

 

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Tuesday, Nov. 3: It’s Election Day. The sky is clear, and the weather is slightly higher than it has been all week. Tomorrow, America will be different. We may have elected a new president to take office in two months time. We may have voted for another four years of Donald Trump.

Odds are, we won’t know the results of the election until later, due to the influx of mail-in ballots caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe we’ll know in a week, maybe a month. No one knows for certain. The collective breath of the country will be held until we know, whenever that may be.

But, what can be said for certain, is that in the span of 24 hours, America will change, for better or for worse.

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