An overseas American: It shouldn’t be this hard to vote
I’m a Sanpete native trying to vote from France and the irregularities I’ve encountered along the way have added to a kind of vertigo I know many of my fellow Americans are feeling right now, no matter who they intend to vote for: Why are the physical mechanics of American democracy so rickety, a roller coaster held together by duct tape?
I hit the trail on an early October day to deliver my village’s two American absentee ballots to the town’s post office nearest my hamlet in the Alps of Haute-Provence. I hiked two and half hours through a storm over an old Roman road, but I managed to keep the ballots mostly dry.
I was driven by an admittedly superstitious hope that if every vote counts, mine would magically count more this way—carried on foot and protected under several layers of raincoat and wool, curled against my core, the place where I still feel the sucker punch of Nov. 9, 2016.
This self-imposed trial was the most straightforward part of casting my vote. I’ve voted by absentee ballot in every election since I moved from New York City to France 11 years ago without ever having a problem requesting and receiving my ballot. This time when I tried to download my ballot, I kept getting a “voter record not found” message. I called the New York Board of Elections every day for five days. In my conversations with the various people I spoke to there, we discovered that my last name was spelled wrong in my voter record and that my address had been changed to one I’d never used to vote. Neither of these errors were present when I voted in 2018, and even after we fixed them it was another several days of trying and calling before the website stopped glitching and let me download my ballot. “Lots of people are having this problem. Just keep trying every three hours,” one NYCBOE worker told me, as though to reassure me.
It’s been a month since I posted my ballot, and for the past several weeks I’ve been checking my status every day using the NYCBOE ballot tracker. Fifteen days ago I received a disconcerting second email notifying me that my ballot was ready for download. After doing a little research, I reasoned that if I downloaded and sent my ballot a second time I’d only be playing it safe, because the voter serial number (VSN) on my security envelope would ensure that my vote wouldn’t be counted twice.
I printed the new ballot and envelope, and that’s when I noticed that it wasn’t the same ballot at all: the second one had only presidential and congressional candidates on it, whereas the first time around I’d been asked to vote for state senatorial candidates and judges as well. That was confusing, but even worse, the voter serial number on the security envelope was not my VSN—the one I’d written down while on the phone with the NYCBOE and seen on the security envelope for my first ballot. I didn’t send the second ballot; with two different VSNs I would effectively be voting twice. Since then I’ve had NYCBOE on speed-dial again at all times of day, and this time nobody is answering.
I always thought that disenfranchisement would feel definite, like a defenestration. Instead it’s a constant, dull anxiety, a slow bleed from a thousand paper cuts as I keep refreshing the ballot tracker page. Did I fold my envelope incorrectly? The instructions said that if both envelopes were not folded correctly, my ballot would be disqualified. There were no instructions about how to fold my ballot to make it fit inside, so I did some freestyle folding. Will that confuse a sorting robot? Will a person sort my ballot? Which is worse? Did I print my ballot wrong? Standard paper size isn’t the same in France as in the US. Has my signature changed as much as my life has in the years since I registered to vote at that address? I’ve read about all the problems with signatures, and I was so nervous when I signed my ballot that it probably reeks of forgery. And I try not to even get started thinking about the recent infrastructure cuts at the USPS.
Those errors in my voter record and the second VSN—foul play or just the ungainly grinding of an inadequate system? I don’t know. What I do know is that it shouldn’t be this hard to vote. It shouldn’t feel like if my vote gets counted, it will be against all odds, like a salmon that somehow swam hundreds of miles up dammed and dying rivers to spawn.
Living as I do in the country that gave us the word bureaucracy, I can eat red tape for breakfast with my pain au chocolat and strong coffee. Yet I was so confused and discouraged, it was tempting to give up before I ever even got my ballot. And now, after all my efforts and with only a few days left, I’m trying to resign myself to the fact that I’ll probably never know whether my vote got counted in this election.