Sunday, February 04, 2007

Best laid plans -- a rant of voter registration

Recently Public Radio International's This American Life had a series of stories who talked about the best laid plans of individuals not turning out as they wished. I have a similar situation with regards to voting in Seattle, WA. Apologies in advance for what is in part, a rant.

Apparently for whatever reason I have not received my ballot in the mail despite trying to get it delivered to my residence. Granted, I am not really a fan of the all mail in ballot but for a whole variety of other reasons regarding work, location of polls and the like, I get it (or at least try) delivered to my residence.

On at least two different occasions, I have tried to change my mailing address, however for any number of reasons I do not seem to get my ballot in the mail. The first was several months ago where a local nonprofit was helping to register voters (in addition to helping voters who moved change their address which was my situation. ) By the time the next election showed up, I did not receive a ballot. I contacted the nonprofit and was assured that the forms were mailed in, and I was directed to call the vote hotline (206-296-VOTE). I called them and then proceeded to ensure that my mailing information was changed. Regardless, I still did not receive a ballot and I ended up going to the Board of Elections. There, I also made sure to fill out a form to verify my address was changed, and I marked myself as permanent absentee. I also received a ballot for that particular election cycle. All was good, or so I thought. Turns out, with this latest election regarding school levies, I still did not receive a ballot at home.

Thinking that it may have been delayed in the mail, I waited for a week or so. Now with the election less than a week away though, I needed to do something to ensure I vote. Just last week, I finally had the chance to go down to the Board of Elections (again) to try and sort this all out. While I had the option of calling, I personally prefer face to face interactions to address problems. Also, I was not convinced I could get resolution via the phone as that didn't seem to work in the past. Anyway, I get to their office with about 15 minutes prior to them closing, given a hectic day at work, and lack of parking around the building where the board of elections is housed. I arrive and indicate that I did not receive my ballot and I am directed to fill out a form. Instantly my guard is up given my last experience with this and I make it clear that I do not want a repeat of my prior situation (filling out a form and not getting a ballot in the next cycle.) The gentleman who is talking with me explains how that should not have happened (duh) and proceeds to investigate why that may have been the case. It turns out that following my last attempt to change my registration, my residence and method of voting should have been ok. Unfortunately, it also appeared that a voter registration card came back to them from the post office and I was then removed from permanent absentee voting. It was unclear if the voter registration card was from the last time I filled out a form at their office, or if it was from the first time I filled out the address change and the timing just overlapped. Regardless, somehow my voter registration card with my current address was returned to the board of elections and I was removed from the list of people to receive an absentee ballot. I was instructed to talk with the post office to find out why my voter registration card was not delivered. Crazy, huh?

While the gentleman at the board of elections showed me the timeline of things associated with my account, I found this a little strange that my card would be returned. First off, I haven't stopped my mail at all. Also, I live literally across the street from the post office. I see them every day arriving to work when I leave for work. I know their schedules intimately from when the trucks show up and who all drives what car. That they could not deliver a voter registration card to me seems a little strange given that I seem to get a lot of other mail -- bills, advertisements or other.

In addition to finding it strange that I was flagged not to receive an absentee ballot, I was also concerned about all of the other folks who would not necessarily (or who could not) take the time to go and talk to someone about not receiving a ballot. From my experiences working as a poll worker (in Chicago, granted) I know how the access to vote, or the perceived access, was one of many ways in which a voter could be disenfranchised. I expressed my concerns as to the overall process and the worker at the Board of Elections ( I really should have got his name) then went on to explain that I was not technically removed from the polls, but rather I would no longer receive a ballot in the mail as it was automatically done when voter registration cards were returned. He explained that was fairly common (?!) and people could still vote at their polling location. I did not know that, and was glad to learn that I was at least still registered. He also went on to explain that I would be eligible to vote on a provisional ballot. He also said I could have called all of this in and they would have attempted to get me a new ballot prior to the election. There were other specifics, but by this time, I was still stuck on the fact that this whole process was rather silly. Wanting more time to read through all of my options, and finding out the specifics, I inquired as to where I could find more information hoping that I could get a pamphlet or something. Instead, I was directed to the website, and was then also instructed that this information could be obtained via email or on the phone. After checking the website I found no mention of these alternatives.

While I appreciate all of these options (searching the web, calling the board of elections, talking to my local post office, going to the board of elections, going to my polling place, emailing, etc) I must say that this whole thing is ridiculous. Why does this election system seems so stacked against the voter? Shouldn't I be drop dead simple for a citizen of the United States to be able to vote? I was initially going to say "registered" citizen…but then I realized that act of registration is rather silly in and of itself. We all have Social Security numbers. We all pay taxes. Somehow with all of that the government is able to find us. Why can't local boards of elections then find us for the elections that happen in our area? Why do we even need to register at all?

Aside from this notion of registration, I'm also wondering about the so called benefits of vote-by-mail. Though the benefits regarding voter participation with mail in voting seem are favorable, my experiences thus far, gives me all the more reason to oppose it. Aside from decreasing the significance shared experiences for a community, any system that is this fragile -- e.g. the reg card is returned by a dependent system, voter no longer receives the ballot, and information is not readily or consistently available as to their options -- certainly seems to hinder and/or discourage people from voting. The cynic in me says this is purposeful, but I may have been watching too many episodes of the X-Files or something.

Anyway, critiquing the system of voting in and of itself will not change much. Can it be better? Of course. Ultimately though, no matter how good the system is, if people are not actually motivated or inspired to vote, we will never have the active and engaged citizenry that the Founders envisioned so many years ago. Now, if there were only more flow like principles designed into civic action :-)


Anonymous said...

Here in WNY voter ballots are not forwardable. They are endorsed, "Do Not Forward" and are returned to sender just like credit cards.

Anonymous said...


Well I'm in Seattle myself, and have been fighting for election integrity for several years. If you ever want to find out more about Vote-By Mail, and all the problems it is causing around the nation, check out my blog:

I'll probably link back to this article, as personal accounts are very useful or illustrating problems in voting systems.

Gentry Lange

hsib said...

Hi Gentry, thanks for the link. Some interesting stuff. I'm curious as to how the next election (viaduct) will go as it's slated to be all mail in for the City of Seattle.