As Know As:
The Truth About Voting Abroad
I tired and I think I successfully vote at the end of October, but right not I’m not sure. This is how my experience started:
The Democratic Nation Convention had an audience that was awash with tears as they watched the demise of the Bernie Sanders campaign. As Bernie Sanders’s brother cast his districts’s votes for Hillary Clinton there was a collective sound of weeping. Throughout Senator Sanders speech and for the rest of the DNC, news cameras could find ‘Feel the Bern’ supporters feeling the ‘Bernie Blues’ as some channels called it.
I am a known Bernie Supporter. I was part of those Democrats abroad that were vying to travel to the US as a delegate for Senator Sanders. I am also a former Democratic campaign worker. Many of my friends are delegates and/or are current campaign staff. I have a Facebook feed full of these well-meaning friends in the States urging me to vote Hillary Clinton, but I was barely able to vote.
I told my friends to stop wasting your time. I don’t need convincing. I know I don’t need to be rah-rah yippee ‘I’m voting for a women’, because as most of you say “at least she isn’t Trump”. I’m a proud head-scarf-wearing Muslim woman so I am highly concerned about the safety of domestically based Muslims and am acutely conscious of the potential repercussions of a Trump Presidency. But I, like many Americans, have a bigger issue because I was almost a disenfranchised voter.
Ok, you are probably wondering how a Democratic Abroad is disenfranchised but trust me it’s a real issue for hundreds of Americans. We aren’t redistricted, we are not face endlessly long lines, or simply not having our votes counted. We absolutely know when our votes are counted because our last place of domestic residence is our district and they email you a confirmation or let us check the voter rolls online. No, our problems are that it’s too expensive to vote and it’s arduous process.
When I was a child I heard about voting abroad. I was told that “people could go to their embassies” or “soldiers can vote on base”, but for everyday citizens that is far from the reality. Many US Embassies don’t allow voting to take place there or if they do you might live to far away to go there. In reality every document to vote in the majority of US districts must be mailed in by the individual. We cannot email or even pretend we live in the 1980s and fax it. Some states do have those as options and they have great forms for you to use to do this, but honestly most of the US does not currently have this option. When you are a student or a twenty something living paycheck to paycheck in a developing country that is impossible.
We don’t have extra money to vote, we barely have money for groceries and rent, and if we get extra money we are going on an adventure to explore the amazing countries we live in. The last time I had extra cash was March. I went to the pyramids of Giza. That entire adventure (taxi rides, food, camel rides, tickets to the pyramids and sphinx, and tickets inside the pyramids themselves) was less money that the cost of printing and shipping my voter registration. And you can’t go just anywhere to print your ballot either because your private data is all over it.
Then you’d probably say to me, “but what about all those websites full of print out for free postage on ballots?”
That is crap. Excuse my language but the postage labels require a printer, ink, and paper. These thing end up being so much more expensive and more difficult to get access to in developed countries. Even if you get them printed these special labels ONLY cover domestic fees. All international shipping costs are still on the voter.
Young adults living abroad don’t all have a parent to call for help. We don’t have a magic monetary safety net to catch us if we spend too much on fresh vegetables instead of ramen. Add those issues to the limited number of jobs at Embassies, NGO or as teachers, nannies, waitstaff, and writers- all of which are mostly low wages (think way less than 20,000 USD a year) and not only does a year abroad seem way less cool but way less feasible in an election year.
I am living in Egypt where the struggle is real when it comes to the economy. As of today one US Dollar equals between thirteen and almost sixteen Egyptian pounds. Items that are imported, like that aforementioned ramen, are traded on US dollars so the cost has more than doubled in less than six months. Not to mention a sugar shortage and the rising costs of gas and electricity.
I can’t afford ramen and now you want me to vote? Haha, you must be joking. It would cost over 550egp to vote that is 5.5 days of take-away food or 5 weeks of groceries or 1/4 of a month’s rent. Why in the world would I vote when neither candidate truly is looking out for my interest?
Because when I go home I plan to be active in local politics again. I want to hold my head high and have the right to criticize the candidates without saying “I didn’t vote so I don’t think it’s right for me to comment.”
That’s why my husband helped me get ink, paper, and an envelope. Thankfully I live in Cairo so I could get to the US Embassy to mail my ballot using the prepaid domestic labels and the US diplomatic pouch for the international shipping. The final cost being fairly reasonable maybe about 80+EGP with the cost of a taxi ride.
The whole process was just over two hours. But let me regale you now with:
The Tale of the Metal Box
Upon arrival I presented emails from the US Embassy stating all the voting information and rights. After multiple people questioned the legitimacy of the emails and copious security checks. I briefly stopped by an empty window then a security guard helped me find ‘the box.’
He pointed me towards a locked metal ballot box sitting on a table. It had only one opening, a tiny slit that barely fit a standard sized envelope. I watched people who opted to print the larger or legal sized labels, tear open their envelopes. They proceeded to slide the documents in loose! The vote abroad site, Democrats Abroad site, US Embassy emails, and FVAP all state that loose materials will not be counted!!!
Dozens of people in line had these over-sized envelopes! And that was merely one day of the more than three week long voting period to use the diplomatic pouch! All those votes most likely never left the Embassy and went uncounted!
After I heard this I contacted American friends that live in other countries. Nigeria, Cameroon, Gambia, South Africa, India, Pakistan the list goes on and on but they all have the same issues.
They barely could afford to get the materials to vote, it was difficult to pay for shipping or get to the US Embassy. Those that managed to get there struggled with ballot boxes that had openings which were too small for the ballot.
I am thrilled my envelope made into the ridiculous box but with the majority of other ballots in a state unacceptable for even mailing (let only tallying) I cannot be sure if my ballot will sent to the US and what will be counted.
I’ll keep an eye on the voting roll and email my US area’s Board of Elections. If I don’t see it past the November 30th absentee ballot date I’ll send them an email. When I find out, I’ll update you and let you know how it turns out.
In the meantime just know that although voting abroad does exist it kinda sucks and until it changes I recommend avoiding living abroad during an election year if you want to be 100% certain that your vote is counted.
I’ve been hesitating to share this because the truth hurts. It is sad in terms of American’s election process and sad to the American voters. But I feel it is extremely important we have voting reform at home and for voters abroad. Share and let people know that voting issues go beyond gerrymandering.
Sorry not sorry for saying that.
PS: If you haven’t voted and are able too. Please try to as soon as possible, remember absentee ballots for US citizens abroad are accepted until November 30th, 2016.