Recent developments have enticed me to write about something very near and dear to my heart, voting. I apologize for the soapbox rhetoric – but I need to get it off my chest :)
Before I became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia I worked for my county elections for about two years – including the summer in between my junior and senior year of college. While there, the majority of my time was spent on voter outreach which included, among other things, registering voters, filing candidates, and sending out ballots to registered voters (via snail mail, email, AND fax). I became familiar with the ebb and flow of elections during my time there. And, in contradiction to what many may think, elections staff members work year round whether there is an election going on or not.
Living abroad as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), has made me appreciate my home state of Washington and for the efforts they’ve made to make it an example State for fair, open, and accessible elections since the election of 2004* (which can be considered one of the most messy, contentious gubernatorial races in US history). This year, being a big election year across the United States, many of my fellow volunteers have expressed to me their desire to vote. Truth be told, PCVs (or at least those now serving in Cambodia) are some of the most informed people on current affairs that I know. It is amazing how up-to-date we can be considering the majority of us live in rural areas without easy access to the internet or the monolith that is the American media. Difficult as it may be to get information on this year’s congressional and gubernatorial races, it seems even harder for some volunteers to vote.
Having sent my ballot in weeks ago – it is hard for me to fathom that other states choose to disenfranchise their overseas voters, however unintentionally. Luckily for me, my ballot was sent to me by email, cutting down the weeks it would have taken me to receive it here in Cambodia and allowing me to send it in four weeks before Election Day. If you are curious as to how email voting works, it is quite simple. A word document with an individually formatted ballot is sent to the voter. The voter than prints out the document and votes, puts the voted ballot in a secrecy envelope inside another envelope that includes a signed voter’s affidavit and then mails it to the individual’s county election department. Washington State is now nearly an entirely vote-by-mail state, with the exception of one (or is it two?) counties, which makes absentee voting from overseas incredible easy as their ballot is already assumed to be coming by mail.
As a UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) covered voter, I am guaranteed the right to register to vote and request an absentee ballot simultaneously, and use a "back-up" ballot for federal offices, called the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. This is wonderful, although it only allows voters covered by the Act who have made timely application for, but have not received, their regular ballot from their state or territory (subject to certain conditions). Recently (as of this election year) UOCAVA has been amended to make voting easier for overseas citizens**. These amendments include the right to a ballot 45 days before an election and the acceptance of ballots that have not been notarized. Does this mean that it is being applied and that voters are aware of their rights?
No, it does not. In fact many of my fellow volunteers had no idea that they could vote by email, or that they could request a ballot that far in advance. Part of the problem is that the voters are ignorant to these subtle changes in election law and, really, who has the time to think about voting over a month in advance of Election Day besides those who are somewhat involved in politics themselves? What is also troublesome is that on many of the county elections websites that I’ve gone to, in order to help my friends, there was no clear language about this at all. And, entirely more troublesome, is the subtle (and sometimes not-so subtle) differences in the ways elections are conducted in every state. For federal election years this may not affect much considering a blanket FVAB (Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot) may be used by any voter, regardless of State but in mid term elections – which influence a voter’s life more directly- they stand to affect a great deal.
In this globalized (yes, I just made it an adjective) and digitalized 21st century – election administrators need to be thinking outside their county borders. We can assume the days of polling stations are coming to an end within my lifetime. People no longer have the time to take off work to go to that church or school around the corner, they need a convenient system of voting that reflects the way they live.
Now, two weeks before Election Day (November 2nd), I am convinced I could have done more to make my friends aware of their voting rights. My only wish is that there is some continuity in the future between our 50 states with voting from abroad so that it may be easier to vote in all elections, not those just for president. The Pew Center on the States, through their Voting Information Project, is working towards making elections information more accessible and the voting process easier to navigate. Information on that and other innovative projects having to do with election reform can be accessed at the following address: http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/initiatives_detail.aspx?initiativeID=31670
To end this tirade of word vomit that I just threw out to the World Wide Web, I want to sincerely thank the elected officials of Washington, Arizona, and other States who have worked to make it easy for me – an American citizen out in the middle of nowhere Cambodia – to vote in this midterm election. When I handed that envelope over to the woman at the post office in Phnom Penh, I felt not only connected to the country that I miss dearly, but more empowered than I have in months. It was awesome.
* To read the props for innovation in elections given to my home state, and that of Arizona, by the Pew Center you may go to this address: http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/report_detail.aspx?id=58215
** Information on the amendments made to UOCAVA, and the act itself, can be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/voting/misc/activ_uoc.php .