Struggling to vote abroad

Amy Hamblin

For Northwestern students studying abroad, voting in the upcoming elections isn’t as simple as going to the polls on Nov. 2.

Some students have complained that voting absentee from overseas can be a discouraging ordeal. As registration deadlines pass across the country, students studying abroad are scrambling to mail in their forms, but many are worried that they won’t arrive on time.

“Unfortunately it’s kind of a daunting process if you never have done it before,” said Amika Porwal, a Weinberg junior who is studying this year at the London School of Economics. “It turns some people off.”

Porwal said she wanted to re-register in her home state of Ohio — a swing state — but was unable to switch her registration from Illinois. In the end, Porwal was able to request an absentee ballot from Illinois.

Although both parties have been stepping up their efforts to encourage overseas voters, many states send out absentee ballots without considering overseas voters.

“By the time it takes mail to travel halfway around the world, you have to turn around and mail back the form the next day, ” said Shira Bergstein, an Education junior who is spending Fall Quarter in Israel.

If students don’t receive their ballots from their states on time, they can request a special federal write-in ballot. But not very many students are aware of this option.

Inconsistent information and dates online have left some people scratching their heads about what to do. Mark Van Arsdale, a Music junior studying in Milan, Italy, said the deadlines his study abroad program gave him didn’t match up with the state deadlines posted on www.overseasvote2004.com.

“I filled out the form but I don’t know what to do with it,” said Van Arsdale, who also is unsure of where to send the form.

American voters in about 25 countries were frustrated when their Internet service providers temporarily were denied access to the Federal Voting Assistance Program Web site, fvap.gov, after the Pentagon bolstered security to prevent voter fraud. The Pentagon reopened access to those countries several days later.

But online system errors are particularly troublesome, said political science Prof. William Reno, given the increasingly popularity of the Internet around the world.

“Internet is much more effective in reaching particularly remote areas,” said Reno, who lived in Africa for several years. “There are a substantial number of countries that don’t have extensive postal systems except in the capital.”

Other inconsistent postal problems also pose a threat to overseas absentee ballots.

“We have had a lot of people wondering where on earth their ballots are,” said Ruth McCreery, the voter assistance chairwoman for Democrats Abroad Japan. “In a few cases, some really weird things have happened. One student’s envelope didn’t have any ballot in it at all.”

Besides political organizations, universities and study abroad offices also have joined the effort to familiarize students studying abroad with the registration process for voting on an absentee ballot.

NU’s Study Abroad Office sent out an e-mail to the 374 NU students abroad this quarter, reminding them to vote and informing them of the procedure.

“The fact that there are special procedures that students abroad have to go through is common knowledge, but we thought we should remind them,” said Jennifer Hirsch, associate director of the Study Abroad Office.

She added that the Study Abroad Office has not yet received any complaints from any students.

Weinberg senior Nicholas Ortiz said the hassle of dealing with absentee ballots abroad can be avoided easily if the forms are sent in before leaving the country.

Ortiz, who is studying abroad in Seville, Spain, this fall, sent in his forms before leaving the United States, but he said he still is waiting to receive his absentee ballot more than a month later.

McCreery emphasized that voting is both a precious “right and obligation,” making it all the more necessary for American citizens not only studying, but living abroad to vote, regardless of the challenges.

“The Florida outcome (in the 2000 election) opened a lot of people’s eyes,” she said. “Really a handful of votes can matter.”

Reach Amy Hamblin at [email protected].