Voting from afar

This is a short tale about my voting experience this year in the US general election, scheduled for November 6. I reside and work in Canada, as I have for more than 14 years now, but I am still a US citizen, registered to vote in Kentucky, as I have been since I was 18 years old. Even when I lived in Syracuse and New York City as a graduate student, I remained registered in Kentucky as my family lived there, and I always considered my school-related moves to be temporary. So when I moved abroad, my voter registration remained in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the last place I was registered before leaving the United States. Ever since then I have requested an absentee ballot for every November general election, except maybe for one off year (2007 maybe?) when there was no Senate, House, or presidential election and no statewide election of consequence and I couldn’t get my act together in time to get the absentee ballot application in on time. And this is the problem, namely, I have to be really on top of the dates to even get my ballot in time to send it back to be counted. My process is to directly contact the county clerk’s office about six weeks before the general election, which is the first time they can take applications for absentee ballots. This seems like a long time, six weeks, but more than one piece of paper has to go back and forth through international mail and in the end it’s just barely enough time. I know there is a slightly different way to do all this with the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), and I haven’t done it usually, though once I did I think and the result was the same.

In any case, I request my absentee ballot, previously by calling the clerk’s office on the phone, though they modernized the service several years ago and I can do so online through the clerk’s office website. I have to indicate one of several reasons why I am not able to vote in person on the day of the election at my polling place or in the county election center, and I have always chosen the only option that fits for me, which is that I am registered in the state but live abroad and my return is uncertain. I was then this year mailed the application for a ballot, I then had to indicate again what my status was, sign the form and return it. I did the online application September 24, and then it takes at least a week for something in the mail to get from Louisville to me here in Windsor (or in the past, Toronto). Forgetting that you can drive that in about six hours, it still has to wind its way through the election center and county clerk office’s processing, then make its way through the US Postal Service and then Canada Post and then me. I got my application sometime in the first week of October, like the 4th or 5th, signed it (the signature is the key) and mailed it back, but I waited a few days and Canadian Thanksgiving intervened, so I didn’t drop it in the mail until maybe October 10 or so. Then … I waited. And waited. And waited. And my actual ballot finally arrived on Thursday, November 1. The completed ballot in the special signed envelope has to be back in the election center in Jefferson County by 6pm on Election Day, November 6. So I voted (more on that below), and then was faced with two options – go to Canada Post, pay upwards of $25 or $30 for an Xpress Post envelope to the US to ensure on-time delivery by election day, or drive over the border into Detroit and go to the post office there. Usually I have chosen the former because my commuting lifestyle meant I was either in Toronto, where there is no handy border to just pop right over in a flash and mail something in the US, or in Windsor with no car because my car was at home in Toronto. So it has regularly cost me $25 at least to vote, because the process is always this slow, no matter how early I request my ballot. This time though, since I am now living in Windsor, I drove over the border, where it cost me one US dollar to mail the completed ballot and I was assured it would take two days at most to arrive through the regular mail. I can’t check easily because the online portal where one can check this through the Kentucky State Board of Elections website gives me a ‘403 invalid action’ response when I enter my info into the status check page. So I have to trust in the system that ensures my vote counts. Do I? Welllllllll….

I have lots of thoughts on all this, as one might imagine. First, the fact that I am currently located on the US border means I can more easily submit my absentee ballot than in the past. My international trip to and from downtown Detroit to vote by mail was a total of maybe 10 km / 6 miles driving, and cost me $12.50 Canadian in tolls, plus the dollar to mail the ballot, still cheaper than mailing it from Canada. Does this amount to a poll tax? I guess you could argue that but then it’s my choice to live abroad (I believe for military service members stationed abroad it’s a different story), so I have not been disenfranchised by the cost of postage. The time constraints are the real worry, and I feel certain that there were ballots in the past that did not arrive on time and were not counted. But I can’t know for sure. In terms of the actual voting, I think I will do the FPCA next election cycle because going through the clerk’s office directly means I get the full local ballot for my specific district in Louisville. So it includes not just important federal contests (this year, House of Representatives, KY-3, but also Senate and President when those elections are on), but also statewide races and every possible local race. The down ballot elections are numerous: mayor, metro city council, state legislature, county coroner, county sub-district soil and water commissioner, and about two dozen state circuit and family court judges. And honestly, if my ‘return is uncertain’ and I have limited knowledge of these races and they impact me in no direct way, why should I vote on them? I don’t live there, I am only registered there because of historic fact; it’s the last place I was registered before leaving the US. Other places may or may not do the same thing, I am not sure, though at least one friend on facebook also living outside the US and unlikely to return, and registered in a different state, indicated that he also gets a full local ballot. I have usually voted in every race on the ballot, feeling it was my duty as an informed voter to do so, and it often takes me at least an hour to fill the thing out before I stick it back in its special envelope. This year I didn’t do that, I voted for the federal House of Reps (my district is relatively safely in the hands of current Democratic representative John Yarmuth), the state senate and house districts, county clerk, mayor of Louisville (voted for an independent), against a proposed Kentucky constitutional amendment regarding “victims’ rights” in criminal court cases (victims have lots of rights already, the state refuses or is unwilling to fund their enforcement, and the wording was vague and in any case, a court case ain’t over til it’s over), and for a few other local races. I left all the other judicial races blank. My reasoning is one, it’s my right to vote based on the ballot they send me and so I will exercise that right, and two, many of the local and state races are potentially impactful for me as a registered voter living outside the state -they could change state election law, most directly. In any case, I will attempt next year the FPCA and see if I get the limited federal ballot, though it seems the FPCA also re-registers the voter every time. It could be that Americans abroad need their own representative(s), though technically we are citizens of the US and of the State in which we reside (and for election purposes, the State in which we last resided and registered), according to the Constitution.

Much more pressing than the minor difficulties I have getting a ballot in on time are the voter suppression efforts at the state level across the US, where thousands of voters’ rights are squashed by partisan efforts to limit the franchise, usually through alterations in the logistical machinery of voting at the state and local level: ‘exact match’ voter registration checks, harsh residency requirements, and strict ID laws combined with attempted limits on early voting and the number and location of polling places. There is also the relentless drumbeat of concern about mass ‘voter fraud,’ which is practically non-existent in the US compared to the number of votes cast annually across all levels of government, and most certainly not a problem that requires the effort and attention devoted to it. Even election hacking is, in my opinion, a problem that results from outdated machinery and registration management techniques, and thus easily solved if money was devoted to election security or we just went back purely to paper and pencil balloting. Data breaches of registration rolls aside, which can be a serious problem, with voting the proof is in the pudding, and election management is so deviously localized in the US, with even adjacent counties having different voting machines (and there are over 3000 counties in the US), that a widespread voter fraud or election hacking effort would be so much more expensive than its payoff that it’s not worth the effort. The one thing that is standardized about US general elections is that they always occur on the first Tuesday in November and so the number one biggest boost to voter turnout and electoral participation would be to make that day a federal holiday.

And a few bold predictions to close this hastily written post: Democrats win the House back, picking up 34 seats to have a small majority of 227 seats; Republicans hold the Senate with 51 seats; but Ted Cruz loses his Texas Senate seat to Beto O’Rourke, and immediately becomes an oil and gas industry (and maybe the porn industry) lobbyist; Stacy Abrams wins her election as governor of Georgia, and is immediately denounced on Twitter by Donald Trump.