Out Of Sight, Out Of Rights

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • Joan Z. Shore Paris columnist, author of 'Saging' and 'Red Burgundy'

Fellow Americans: If you think casting your vote is going to be
problematic this year, if you question the accuracy and integrity of the
Diebold voting machines, if you fear yet another miscarriage of the
electoral process, let me tell you what it's like to try to vote from
overseas, on an absentee ballot.

For servicemen and women overseas, the process is fairly simple.
It's assumed that our patriotic fighting forces will support the status
quo -- the governing party -- and their ballots are carefully distributed,
returned and counted.

But for ordinary citizens -- who are often not so ordinary, because
their jobs or their education or their personal lives compel them to
relocate -- merely applying for an absentee ballot can be difficult and
frustrating. And getting it counted can be another hurdle.

For many years, expatriate Americans were actually denied the right
to vote -- even though they are required to report to the IRS every year
and pay federal taxes! (The United States is the only country in the
Western world that taxes its nationals who are living and working abroad.)
In the seventies, several American organizations overseas fought this
unfair exclusion. In one of our best campaigns, we distributed teabags
with the motto: "Taxation without representation is tyranny!" Sound

So we finally got the vote. The problem then was to register and get
the ballot. If you owned property in the U.S., you applied to that state;
otherwise, you applied to the state of your last residence. So far, so
good. But you had to write in every election year, months in advance, to
request that absentee ballot.

One year, New York sent me someone else's ballot. (Absentee ballots
are not secret ballots. They bear your name and you have to sign them
when you return them.) So did "Mr. Steinberg" get my ballot? It was
never straightened out -- neither he nor I voted.

Acquiring an apartment in Florida, I switched my voting residence to
that state. I registered with the Broward County Election Board, got my
Voter Identification Card, and wrote early that spring to request my
absentee ballot for the presidential election. No reply. I wrote again,
a few months later. Still no reply. Then I learned that one could apply
for the ballot online. I did, but still no ballot.

The week before Election Day, I called the American consulate in
Paris and asked what I could do.

"If you don't have it by Election Day, come over and we'll give you a
ballot," they said cheerfully.

So I went and was promptly given a ballot (without having to show any
identification!). I filled it out and handed it back.

"When will it go out?", I asked.

"They're all mailed out tonight", they promised. I was sure my vote
for John Kerry was in good hands -- a U.S. diplomatic mail pouch.
One month later, I got a printed notice from my Broward County
Election Board informing me that my ballot had been "disqualified".....
because I had never requested it!

There are an estimated four million American expatriates, excluding
military, all around the world. Can you imagine how many of them lose
their vote in similar ways, for equally outlandish reasons?

This year, I did receive a ballot from Broward and I mailed it back a
couple of weeks ago. (Return postage is free, but not outside the U.S.,
so this cost me 2.50 euros -- just over three dollars.) Will it be
disqualified again? For instance, for insufficient postage?

P.S. - I sent this article to the Sun Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale and the
Palm Beach Post. Neither paper would publish it! So much for the free
press in Florida.