Many Americans will probably agree that, politically speaking, 2017 was not a great year. It started with fallout from the 2016 presidential election and went downhill from there.
Of course, there were cheerful blips, such as the defeat in Alabama of Roy Moore, who has charitably been called “horrific.” But even so, a typical New Year’s greeting from a political friend went, “2018 has got to be better than 2017—unless we have a nuclear war.”
As a result of the gloom, a lot of us, including me, have gotten more politically involved than ever. Conversely, I’m embarrassed to admit I neglected to absentee vote in fall 2017, elections in my home state, despite saying I would. I could claim I was too busy wringing my hands. But putting my head in the sand, at least for a few weeks, is probably a more truthful explanation. Luckily, the local and state candidates I would have voted for mostly won, according to hometown compatriots. But, had those candidates lost—and lost only by a few votes, which isn’t uncommon—my buddies would have been peeved at me for not voting.
So my sole New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to request my ballot early. Savvy mentors told me to do it online first thing in January, using either votefromabroad.org or FVAP.gov. Of course, ballot requests can be done later than that; the general election isn’t until November and even the earliest primary (Texas) isn’t until March. But requesting my ballot online January 1 would set me up to get ballots for every election I’m eligible to vote in this year, including primaries and special elections. Even better, it would put to rest that nagging little voice telling me I’d better not screw up again.
Now, here’s an earth-shattering factoid I stumbled across on the road to my ballot request: the 2018 “mid-term” election is a biggie. I guess you political savants realize this, but it came to me as a shock (albeit a pleasant shock): the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs, as well as a third of the Senate and a bunch of state legislatures, governorships and local offices. So 2018 could usher in a lot of new faces to block laws or nominees they don’t like during Trump’s third and fourth years.
Another astounding discovery I made while gearing up to request my ballot was that an expat friend, a fortyish African American living in Guadalajara, now calls himself a “political atheist” because in November, 2016, after dutifully getting his absentee ballot and filling it out with his vote for Hilary Clinton, could not in the end bring himself to mail it in.
“I just couldn’t vote for her. I threw the envelope in the garbage,” he said.
To me, Trump was so bad that I hewed to the dictum, “Any port in a storm.” But my friend’s anecdote, along with what happened in Alabama, made it clear that minorities – no doubt including Mexican-Americans – will not vote Democratic just to vote Democratic, nor because the alternative is horrible. Doug Jones, the winner in Alabama, had proven by deeds, not words, that he was a friend to blacks; he prosecuted two KKK perpetrators of a 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. I saw videos of black women (considered key to Jones’s victory) weeping with joy after he was elected—a demonstration of sincerity if ever there was one. This tells me that, besides getting out the vote, the opposition must have candidates with genuine appeal.
Back to logistics: another common worry that emerged during the countdown to January 1 was confusion about whether expats really need to use votefromabroad.org or fvap.gov to request their ballots. “I think I’m already registered,” they say. Or, “I’m on a first-name basis with my local election official.” Or “If I use those sites will I end up requesting my ballot twice and get in trouble?”
All good questions. But my mentors assured me not to worry. That’s because when you use these sites, you register and request your ballots in one fell swoop—if you’re already registered, the sites simply make it official that you want your ballots and establish the address, usually an e-mail address, to send them (which usually happens when the ballots are ready, several weeks before each election—primaries, regular elections and even special elections).
“The local election official is in charge of making sure that only one ballot goes to each voter per election,” said one mentor. “So even if you’ve submitted the form more than once, they make sure there are no duplicates.”
Hallelujah. But even more importantly, my mentors said, the intersection of federal, state and local voting laws can be so complicated that using votefromabroad.org or FVAP.gov is the only 100-percent-accurate way to make sure your vote is counted. What’s more, it’s important to renew your ballot request every year—if you don’t, but receive your ballots anyway via some nice election official, in the event of a challenge and recount, your ballot could be thrown out!
Bummer. But on the bright side, other benefits of using these two sites (as opposed to other means, such as the individual sites set up by states) are that there may be fewer hurdles to jump. Whether intentionally or by accident, some state sites are not so good and make things difficult for absentee voters. On votefromabroad.org and fvap.gov, requirements, such as having a state driver’s license number on hand, may be fewer. In addition, children of expats may find it easier to use these two sites than individual state sites.
One last and very good reason for using votefromabroad.org or FVAP.gov is that you generate a ballot request that is filled out by a computer (except for your signature). Since the main reason for rejection of ballot requests is illegible handwriting, this is a big plus.
OK, I was convinced to request my ballot online. I confess, I didn’t do it at 12:01 a.m. January 1, but by January 2, I was ready.
My motto is that anything is easy once you know how. And there is a moderate learning curve for the sites. The instructions require careful reading and sometimes a bit of guesswork. Be ready with your stateside address—your residence or the last residence you (or, in the case of expats’ kids, a parent) voted from. Numbers (Social Security, driver’s license, etc.) may be required, as well as a local mailing address and phone, an e-mail address and a backup e-mail address. For those who find doing all this at home too difficult, the Ajijic and Guadalajara chapters of Democrats Abroad are planning many helpful, public events (and they don’t ask questions about your party affiliation).
For those who fret about the privacy of their data, FVAP.gov times out after 15 minutes of inactivity and all your data goes bye-bye once you fill out your ballot request and download the .pdf for printing. On votefromabroad.org, after you finish your request and get your .pdf, the site sponsor, Democrats Abroad (DA), asks for permission to save your data and make you a member of DA (which you can, of course, decline). If you agree, DA will follow up to make sure you get your ballot and everything is OK.
Glitches I encountered January 2 were that my tired computer crashed after the ballot request was half filled out, so it had to be started over. The second try went smoothly in about five minutes. Next, my printer was out of colored ink, so I had to set it to grayscale printing—a bit challenging.
So now the request is signed and ready to be e-mailed. It must also be snail mailed, according to the state requirements, but there’s plenty of time for that, either by asking a friend traveling to the States to put it in their suitcase or sending it through the Mexican postal system or another carrier. When it comes time to send back ballots, expats can normally do that via helpful U.S. consulate officials or, for many states, simply via e-mail or fax.
Should auld defeats be forgot and never brought to mind? No way. I’m on the road to what some are calling our 2018 revolution abroad.