Sitting in a café overlooking Václavské náměstí, I watched as Samuel crawled along the window sill pretending to be a puppy and tried to rein my focus back to the voting process my friend Julia was detailing. “It’s not hard for Americans to vote from abroad,” she said. “But the process has changed and most people don’t know that they have to request their ballots in order to vote – plus deadlines are coming up soon.” Although the November 6, 2012 election date still seemed distant to me, Julia’s excitement was infectious, so I listened to learn more. Politics isn’t a natural interest of mine, but nonetheless, I feel a sense of responsibility to cast a vote.
When it comes to politics abroad, I often find myself surrounded by well-informed Czechs that know as much, if not more, about headline news in the US than I do myself. The doorman at my children’s gymnastics has already been badgering me to find out whether I’ll cast my vote for Obama or not. He’s convinced that since I’m from Virginia, I’ll vote conservatively.
US news does get a fair amount of play in the press here. So there is no excuse for the fact that I’ve gotten most of my pre-election information thus far from reading Facebook posts – from friends on both sides of the political spectrum. I am leery of being either too positive or too critical of American politics from afar. It never seems fair when I listen to American expats who lambast US governmental policy but never take the time to make their own vote count.
Having lived in Prague through several presidential elections, Julia told me that though the voter laws had changed recently and caught many Americans off guard, there were several sites that helped smooth the way for those of us living abroad. Since she’d been a volunteer voter register at the Bohemia Bagel near Old Town in the autumn before the 2008 elections, technology had continued to improve in the favor of overseas voters. I remember the morning when a particularly friendly American expat had convinced me to spare a few minutes and fill-out my voting registration electronically on one of the café’s computers. I smiled thinking that Julia could have been there that day too.
Although it was hard to focus on the importance of having a voice in the upcoming presidential elections when my toddler was expanding his own voice to “huff” on all fours, we persisted. Julia was a willing talker and eager to explain the procedure to someone who had forgotten exactly how to obtain an absentee ballot. Although as I listened, I realized that since the process is different this year, even an experienced voter needed the update. The voting process from abroad had seemed intimidating in the past, and if I hadn’t run into the willing volunteer four years ago, I don’t know if I’d have been motivated to figure out the steps on my own.
As we chatted, Julia explained that the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act had made some aspects of voting simpler and some more complex. She stressed that it was important to note that new regulations require you to request your absentee ballot anew this year (and after January 1 every calendar year hereafter) even if you have voted from abroad in past elections. The US Embassy’s Voter Assistance webpage confirms that every US citizen can receive a ballot for the 2012 presidential election by filling out a new Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) electronically. Websites such as the Federal Voting Assistance website http://www.fvap.gov/request/request-va.html or www.votefromabroad.org walk you step-by-step through the process of registration and requesting your ballot based on your state of last residency. Upon receipt of a valid FPCA, states are now required to provide electronic ballots (by email, electronic download or fax) 45 days before an election.
Although I’d often heard that votes from abroad don’t even count, the Vote from Abroad webpage posted an article debunking popular myths about voting from abroad with #3: “They don’t even count overseas ballots.” Most states now have voter verification websites and means of tracking the process of your voted ballot as long as it’s cast within the valid time. Yes, a vote cast from outside the US is valuable. How else can the US government serve its citizens living abroad unless we reveal our preferences by voting in official elections? As the Embassy website states, within the past 10 years many elections have been decided by a margin victory of only 0.1%, which means overseas voters can make a difference.
Once home, I breezed through the electronic registration in a few minutes then emailed the electronic pdf to myself so that I could print it and then mail it to my local Virginia officials. If going to the post office in the Czech Republic is as low on your list as it is on mine, or if you don’t want to pay for international postage, the US Embassy and the International Women’s Association of Prague are both collecting voter forms to be mailed in the Embassy’s diplomatic pouch bulk to the States. Bring your form and printed instructions by September 24 to the Embassy or IWAP in order to be included in the mailing. The US Embassy even offers a Voting Assistance Officer, although the online registration process seemed straightforward and smooth, even for a non-techie like myself.
Upon receipt of my ballot request, my hometown registrar should email, fax or mail my blank ballot at least 45 days before the election. The timing could be tight depending on how long it takes my mailed request to arrive (another reason to drop your FPCA at the Embassy), but in case I don’t receive my ballot in time, I am eligible to complete the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB), which is also available on both the Vote Abroad and the FVAP websites.
After my café chat with Julia, I was glad her enthusiasm had spurred me into action in time to cast my vote this election. I’m eager to see how quickly my ballot will arrive, and even more eager to cast my vote. In the meantime, I thought I might spend some time brushing up on national politics so that I could be a more informed voter albeit from afar. The Embassy suggested a non-partisan website called Project Smart Voter complete with voting records for all the major candidates and patriotic music. I figured it was worth a look, and the patriotic music should hold Samuel’s attention better than the window sill in the café downtown.
As I finished perusing the smart voter website, I was reminded of a story a friend recently posted on Facebook. On her daughter’s first day of first grade last Monday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus came to welcome the class to the school. When a television reporter in attendance asked one of the first graders if he liked the president, he replied firmly, “No, because he took that pen.”
Sometimes, no matter how much research is involved, our political reactions are instinctive, and I trust when I vote, I’ll make my choice as honestly as that first-grader did. With a little effort, your voice can be heard, even from abroad.