Voting Abroad in the Trump Era: Trust in Democracy, and the Absurdity of the Electoral College

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Absentee Ballots!

I voted from Rwanda! The other day I printed, signed, scanned, and emailed my ballot in via the Federal Voter Assistance Program (FVAP), tracking my ballot’s progress every day via Oklahoma’s online voter portal. Finally, nearly a week after sending the email, I received an email back from FVAP confirming they had printed the ballot and forwarded it on to Oklahoma via fax, and confirmed in Oklahoma’s online voter portal that it had been received. I could breathe a sigh of relief.

But my experience voting from abroad shows that all is not well in American democracy.

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Tracking my ballot through Oklahoma’s online voter portal

For starters, relief is not an emotion one should feel after casting one’s ballot. I’ve worked overseas for the last nine years. This is my fourth time voting using FVAP, but the first where I’ve had doubts over whether my ballot would be counted. For over a week I dithered over whether to use FVAP or physically mail my ballot from the embassy, due to lingering fears that my faxed-in ballot might not be counted — that Trump might have hijacked FVAP, that Oklahoma could have secretly changed its laws at the last minute to disallow ballots sent via FVAP, or that a Trump sympathizer in the county election office might transfer my ballot from the fax machine to the trash.

Probably paranoia, but the fact that these concerns are even within the realm of possibility — especially for a naturally trusting, anti-conspiracy theory person such as myself — speaks volumes to how much damage Trump has done to our faith in institutions.

Voting should be as easy and reliable as ordering a package on Amazon. We’re supposed to be able to just send in a ballot and trust that the honest people in our government process it in good faith, just like we send in an order on Amazon and it arrives within days. And before this year, we always could. Democratic “institutions” are far more the product of trust and faith in the good intentions of our fellow humans than of objective “things” that exist in physical reality; when people start to lose faith, democracy is in trouble.

But beyond the question of trust in the system, the act of mailing in a ballot from overseas raises important questions about the system itself: as someone who does not physically reside in a state, which state should I mail that ballot to in a federal election — and more importantly, why should the state even matter?

There’s of course the legal answer, which is that it should be the address where I last resided in the US, OR where my state drivers license is / where I get US based mail.

But in principle, why should that be the case? Why should someone have to determine which imaginary lines to send their ballot to when they do not physically reside within those imaginary lines?

Whenever I talk to fellow Americans about the election, the first question that always comes up is, “which state are you voting in?”

When the answer is a battleground state like Florida, Pennsylvania, or Georgia, the reaction is excitement: “ah nice, so your vote matters!”

But when the answer is a deeply red or blue state like Oklahoma or Massachusetts, the reaction is more along the lines of, “ah bummer, so your vote doesn’t matter. Well, I guess still makes sense to vote, to run up the popular vote at least.”

These are conversations that should never happen: no person’s vote should count more than someone else’s just because of where they are sending it to. This is already apparent to most Americans, but it is even more obvious for those of us voting from overseas, where we physically reside in the same place, but wield vastly different power in the Electoral College.

As a thought experiment, if I were to re-register to vote from overseas, which state should I register in? I was born in Texas, and lived there for the first 10 years of my life. My grandfather still lives in the town I was born in. I attended middle school and high school in Oklahoma, and my parents still reside there. I went to college in Massachusetts, and worked for four years in the DC metro area — the first three of those in Virginia, and the fourth across a river (and an imaginary line) in DC itself. My brother lives in North Carolina, and I have aunts and uncles in Michigan, Louisiana, Washington, Illinois, and Texas. Whenever I move back, I could live in any of those states — or for that matter, in any other state.

So the thought experiment is: given that I don’t physically reside in the state of my driver’s license, is there any principled reason that I should not be able to choose any state I want to vote in for a federal election? Why should I not be allowed to have my vote for a federal office count in the state of my birth (Texas), a state I’ve previously lived in (like Virginia), or a state I could make a case I might move back to (like North Carolina)?

The only reasonable answer is that it shouldn’t matter. Whichever state I send my ballot back to, my vote should count exactly the same toward the president of all 50 states as the rest of my fellow Americans abroad sending ballots back to “their” states.

And the only way to make this a reality is to have the people — not the states — elect their president.

Land doesn’t vote. Imaginary lines on a map don’t vote. People vote. This was settled after the Civil War, when the apostrophe for our nation’s plural moved from These United States’ to The United State’s, and again when the election of senators was moved from state legislatures to the people. The next logical step is to move to direct election of the president.

Any system that produces conversations like “your vote counts, you’re from a swing state — my vote doesn’t count” is fundamentally unjust. And any election result based on land or lines but not on people, regardless of whether it follows the letter of the law, violates the spirit of democracy — and should therefore be considered suspect.

Written by

Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, working on solar energy and rural electrification in Africa, BA in Social Studies from Harvard

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