By Caroline Beit
At six years old my father brought me to the polls on Election Day. I was able to accompany him into the voting booth and, with a cat-like grin on my face, pull the big lever on one of the old mechanical voting machines. Twelve years later in the dawn of the 2018 elections, I was excited to vote. I pre-registered through the New York State DMV (a fairly simple process, solely involving inputting my birthday, driver’s license number, social security number, and political party into a form on the internet), so all that remained was to obtain an absentee ballot while in Hanoi, Vietnam, where I was teaching English as part of my gap year.
After settling into my teaching duties in Hanoi in August and a month before my 18th birthday, I decided to look up locations to pick up my absentee ballot for the upcoming midterm elections. A Google search on my cell phone suggested that this would be an easy process via the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) process, which implemented the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), and, best of all, the U.S. Embassy could help me obtain an absentee ballot from the New York State Board of Elections.
While marching down to the U.S. Embassy on Lang Ha street, I saw ladies carrying fruit baskets trying to sell me mangoes and men on motorbikes offering taxi rides. Upon arriving at the embassy, I quickly became aware that getting my absentee ballot was not going to be as easy as advertised online. The first challenge was just trying to explain to the security guard that I wanted to enter the embassy to get help obtaining an absentee ballot. Unlike the movies where tall marines in white uniforms with M16 rifles stand guard over the U.S. Embassy, our government seems to have outsourced this function in Hanoi to a local private security contractor. With a significant language barrier, I pantomimed the purpose of my visit. However, I quickly came to realize that this method of communication was totally ineffective, and more than likely I looked as if I was attempting to try out for a basketball team. Eventually after flashing my American passport, the security guard finally exclaimed in broken English “American Citizen Services?” “Yes!” I replied with a sense of accomplishment, “American Citizen Services.” My enthusiasm quickly faded when the security guard told me “not here,” and handed me a business card with the address of a separate building half a kilometer away.
Still determined to apply for an absentee ballot by post card I walked to the building that houses the American Citizen Services.Once again, I tried to explain the purpose of my visit to the security guards who seemed bewildered by my request. First, he ushered me to a line for people applying for work or travel visas to the U.S., and then chastised me me for not having a visa application in hand. Undeterred, I explained that I didn’t need a visa, I was a U.S. citizen and needed U.S. Citizen Services. Finally, the guards understood and checked me through security, which forced me to relinquish my cellphone to gain entrance to the building. The security guards also tried to take custody of my driver’s license, stating that they needed to have a piece of identification with them for me to enter. Annoyed, I patiently tried to explain that I needed my driver’s license to apply for the absentee ballot. Eventually, after repeatedly explaining myself, they let me keep it.
The security guard who accompanied me into the building tried to bring me to yet another line for visas. Accepting the Kafkaesque nature of the situation, I again explained I didn’t need a visa; I wanted to apply for an absentee ballot. The security guard, nodding, brought me to a different queue where I was finally helped.
Showing my passport to a woman seated behind a glass barricade, I asked if she could help me obtain an overseas absentee ballot. She said “yes” handing me a business card with the website where I could print out the form to request my absentee ballot. I explained that I already knew about this website and the form but wanted help filling it out. She explained they don’t help do that because it is too complicated. I protested that on the embassy’s website, it says one can pick up a copy of the form and get assistance filling it out. She replied by saying “if you fill it out, we can mail it for you, but you might be able to scan it and email it to your Board of Elections, it depends on the state. Sorry, I really don’t know.” I asked whether she could at least print the form out for me. She responded “no,” even though a printer was right behind her. She explained that I could wait almost four hours until one o’clock to go to the embassy’s quasi-library which has computers. Properly frustrated at this point, I decided rather than waiting around it was better to go back to the dormitory where I was living, regroup and get it printed in the office there.
Back at the house, I talked with some of my friends in their late-teens/early-twenties about my experiences that day. They all remarked that I shouldn’t have even tried. Half of them weren’t even registered to vote in their states, and none had signed up for an absentee ballot. When I asked why, one of my friends said, “I don’t know how to register” another also said, “who’s in office doesn’t affect me, so I don’t really see the point in voting”. Why in school wasn’t registering to vote taught? And furthermore, who’s in office does affect you. Everything from what social service get funded to whether the roads are paved is controlled by politicians, and yes that affects your daily life. Voting makes sure that it can affect your life in the way you want it too. Many of my friends also said that they just didn’t feel as if their vote mattered or could determine any election; one vote probably won’t determine an election, but the collective idea that one’s vote doesn’t matter will. For most of my friends, it was not that they didn’t want to vote; they were simply put off by the process. Registering to vote, not even for an absentee ballot, required too many steps, finding the application, sitting down to fill out an application or finding one’s social security number. Getting an absentee ballot was seen as even more of a hassle, especially when the popular vote doesn’t always determine the winner of the election; why vote if the popular vote is not going to win?
Lastly, a growing dissatisfaction with all politicians was palpable; “they’re all corrupt” was said in reference to how special interests groups effectively give so much money to politicians that they speak for corporations and not people, and “what’s the point of lesser of two evils when they’re the same” in reference to the 2016 election. The resounding theme of my conversation with my fellow American volunteers and housemates was that even if their vote counted and changed the results of the election, politicians still wouldn’t represent them. Our country may have been built upon the idea of by the people, for the people, but for my peers, that seems to have been lost in translation.
Though proudly emancipated and successfully navigating living in a developing country on my own, I was still struggling to see a path forward through the overseas absentee ballot bureaucracy, and regressed to calling and texting my parents for help. My dad, though confused himself about the process and regulations (had I actually already registered to vote in New York? Could I authorize him to sign and send in the forms for me?) offered equal parts help (telling me to email the Westchester Board of Elections for further guidance) and jokes to relieve my frustration (telling me that when I got home my grandmother, formerly a district leader for her political party, was going to disown me for my choice of political party).
With renewed vigor after talking with my father I was determined not to give up. Partially because the upcoming midterm election are going to be a defining moment in American politics, but also because, as a woman, I am aware of what a privilege it is to live in a time and country where I am eligible to vote. Women’s voting rights aren’t just something that has been either won long ago or in countries that more generally treat women badly. While the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1920, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that women of color gained broad access to the polls. Surprisingly (at least for me), women in Portugal and Switzerland didn’t get the right to vote until the 1970s, and in the case of Switzerland it wasn’t until 1991 that women could vote in all local elections across the country. On another level, I am simply too stubborn and was too far into the process to quit at that point. The roadblocks to voting only make me want to vote more. Maybe this is because I am slightly indoctrinated by the idea that it is my civic duty to vote, maybe it’s because I don’t like being told no. All I do know, is that I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me from voting.
Eventually, after getting a response from the Board of Election, printing and filling out the forms, going to a copy shop and heading back to the embassy, I finally deposited my absentee ballot application into the diplomatic mail pouch, all while remarking to myself that I have had more pleasant experiences at the DMV. I texted my dad to let him know that if all goes well, I will be able to vote in the November election. He texted back that he had one especially persistent child; adult, I corrected him, but yes, persistent.
Throughout this process, I couldn’t help but think of all the ways it could have been made simpler for new voters and voters living abroad. When I got my driver’s license or last paid my taxes, I could have been automatically registered rather than having to fill out an additional form online. Since 2016 this has been the case In Oregon where voter registration is an opt-out process rather than an opt-in process and is done automatically when residents get licenses from the DMV. This measure, in about 2 years, has increased voter turnout by 2-3%. When I left the country, I could have been given instructions on how to get an absentee ballot. The embassy could have printed copies of the application for me, which legally they were supposed to do. There could have been a live chat on the absentee ballot website to ask specific questions. We as a country keep talking about how important youth vote; yet trying to simply get an absentee ballot was such an ordeal. I can’t help but think of all the points at which someone even slightly less persistent would have stopped trying.
Claims of voter fraud, such as the assertion by some that three million fraudulent votes were cast in the last presidential election, is one of the excuses given against making the process simpler. This is a laughable argument, common sense dictates that those intent on breaking the law are going to direct their efforts towards far more lucrative activities than voter fraud.
So yes, I will vote in the midterm election in October rather than November via an email ballot, even though it means waiving my right to a private ballot. Hopefully my application doesn’t get lost in the diplomatic mail system. I would hate to have four failed attempts at describing an absentee ballot in pantomime, seven emails to the Board of Elections and two visits to the U.S. Embassy amount to nothing. Through this process, I have gained additional perspective on the context of events leading to the passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965, even though the impediments I faced to voting were bureaucratic.
Caroline S Beit is a rising first-year in Yale College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.