11/02/2012 04:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Notes From an Overseas Voter

Voting in 2008 was great.

After waiting in a line that snaked under a tunnel of scaffolding somewhere near Manhattan's 86th Street, I pulled a dirty crimson curtain behind me and stood before a voting console the height and heft of a pinball machine. I flipped my candidate's switch - hope and change, baby! Let's do this! - then pulled a lever that felt like it was sending my vote straight to the Capitol Dome. It was an unexpectedly satisfying experience, a physical labor on behalf of democracy.

There are a lot of reasons why 2012 isn't as good as 2008. One of the smaller and more selfish ones is that this time I feel less like an essential cog in the wheel of civilization and more like an old man mailing letters to the editor that no one will ever read. This time, I am a voter abroad.

We are a tiny crew, the people who don't live in the US but still exercise our right to vote there. Only 7 percent of Americans abroad bother to cast their ballots, according to Global Post. To put that level of disengagement into context: high school dropouts are one of the least politically active demographics in the US, and 39 percent of them vote.

There are a lot of reasons for this apathy. Some Americans choose an overseas address because they are fed up with their home country, and figure that any place where "Paul Ryan shirtless" gets nine times as many Google searches as "Paul Ryan budget" deserves whatever it gets come Election Day.

The quirks of the Electoral College can also sap an expat's motivation to put in the extra effort required to cast an overseas vote. Why bother keeping track of the special advance deadlines for registering, obtaining and returning a ballot, one could argue, if your vote is just a surplus drop in a red or blue bucket?

And then there is the sneaking suspicion that votes that arrive in airmail envelopes simply don't count.

This is my second time voting abroad. The first was in 2004, when I was working in Phnom Penh. After shuffling through security at the US Embassy, I checked a box on the back of a postcard and then handed it - without any kind of envelope - to a consular worker bearing the bored and bemused expression of a postal clerk accepting a child's letter to Santa Claus. I don't believe that anyone, anywhere, counted that vote.

I know that voting absentee is technically the same as voting on Election Day. The US Postal Service insists that Sandy won't disrupt voting by mail. Even Obama voted early. Fine.

But I still have a hard time believing that overseas votes aren't just shoved into a pile to be opened only in cases of electoral emergency.

This is the first election since my daughter was born. I imagined carrying her into the booth with me on her first Election Day and explaining how it worked: that my vote - and one day, hers - would count as much as the president's; that all that is best about the way this government operates is founded on the simple dignity of this act.

Instead, two weeks ago I placed the yellow envelope addressed to the Board of Elections on Varick Street into her hand and held her up while she dropped it into the slot of one of Her Majesty's crimson mailboxes. All suspicions aside, this labor - small as it is - is still worth it. Count me in with the 7 percent.