‘I’m not sure I would’ve voted’: Vote from Abroad helps Americans in Paris register for midterms
Volunteers with Vote from Abroad help US citizens register to vote for the 2022 midterm elections. © Mariamne Everett, France 24

Turnout for US elections among overseas voters tends to be very low compared to turnout among their stateside counterparts. US voter registration group Vote from Abroad has been trying to change this ahead of the upcoming midterms by holding events like the one that took place at Paris’s Cité Universitaire on Thursday.

"Young people care about voting, but they get frustrated as they have to deal with old-fashioned voting procedures and have busy lives."

Pavel is exasperated. A 21-year-old from Alabama studying philosophy and public policy at NYU Paris, he will be voting for the first time from overseas and finds the process overly complicated.

"Having voter registration tables like this one set up helps simplify the process for us," he said while attending the event on Thursday night.

Vote from Abroad, a "nonpartisan voter registration and overseas ballot request service available to all overseas United States citizens and military voters", has been trying to improve low turnout among overseas voters by holding events around Paris. In person, on Zoom or over the phone, its volunteers have been helping fellow citizens who want to vote in the November 8 midterm elections.

According to reports by the Federal Voting Assistance Programme (FVAP), only 4.7 percent of eligible US citizens (18 years and older) voted in the 2018 midterms, compared to approximately 65 percent of eligible stateside citizens. Despite the problems associated with Covid-19 pandemic, these percentages rose slightly to 7.8 percent for overseas voters and 79.2 percent for domestic voters during the 2020 presidential election.

Max, one of the Vote from Abroad volunteers, said that so far, "we get just as many people … at the on-campus [voter registration] events” as in 2020 or 2018. “At the other events, at Anglophone bookstores, markets and cafés, attendance is down a bit from 2020 but comparable to 2018."

Complex voting process

Vote from Abroad’s latest voter registration event took place Thursday evening at the Maison de l’Île-de-France at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, a private foundation and park that provides accommodation to international students and visiting academics. Max said that Cité was chosen because "a lot of students from around the world live there" and Maison de l’Île-de-France, specifically, because people who attended registration events at NYU and the Fondation des États-Unis (US Foundation) suggested the location.

After registering to vote and sending off their ballots, many US citizens at the event expressed frustration at what they perceive to be an overly complicated voting process.

"I’m not sure I would’ve voted, had volunteers from Vote from Abroad not talked me through the voter registration process," said Chloe, a 20-year-old NYU anthropology student from Washington.

Part of what makes the process so complicated is that every state has its own deadlines and rules, which can include whether electronic or paper-only ballots will be accepted. Paper ballots must be postmarked and arrive before a state’s deadline to be counted.

Furthermore, the ballot that voters fill out at these registration events is technically a back-up ballot. Vote from Abroad volunteers explained that if an overseas voter wants to make absolutely sure that a vote is counted, it’s best to also send a primary ballot, which a voter should receive after their election office confirms they are registered. Volunteers also said some voters may not be able to return their ballots via registered mail.

All this means that even after filling out two forms at an event’s table, a prospective voter has merely sent off a request to register to vote, which must be received and acknowledged, and a back-up ballot, which they may or may not know has been accepted unless they follow up with their local election office. A true nightmare to face alone, and a Kafkaesque situation even with help.

Why vote?

Many young people who came to the Maison de l'Île-de-France were eager to have Vote From Abroad volunteers help them while they registered to vote.

Antonio, a 20-year-old jazz studies student from California and first-time overseas voter, said that "voting in general is important", even though he doesn’t have a specific issue in mind.

Pavel explained that he wanted to vote in the midterms because “I care about who controls Congress, my local office and I think it’s important to vote in competitive elections. I also have issues that are important to me, including codifying Roe v Wade, and am not enthused about Republican fiscal policies, as they might make the Biden administration cut money on Medicare and Social Security." He added that his family in the US are voting for the same reasons.

Jessica, a 20-year-old NYU Paris anthropology student from California and another first time overseas voter, said she wanted to make sure she voted even while abroad because she feels that "voting is important, it is a form of political activism and that as a student, it is my responsibility to shape the future".

Although she believes that voting in itself is important, she said she felt pushed to do so as several issues are important to her, including climate change, gun safety and abortion rights legislation.

Chloe said: "It’s important for young people to educate themselves on current topics and vote."

The volunteers at Vote from Abroad’s events also help overseas voters check on the status of their ballots. Pavel said he had sent his ballot three weeks ago, but was still waiting for an email to inform him it had been received. One of the volunteers called Pavel’s local election office, and, after being put on hold several times, was told by a person at the other end to call back on Tuesday to see if the ballot had been received.

Following the registration event, Matthew, 35-year-old life coach from Florida who had contacted volunteers from Vote from Abroad for help with mailing his completed ballot, expressed frustration at the overseas voting process.

He said the instructions accompanying the ballot were "vague and long", that there are "many little tricks that can invalidate a ballot" and the "ballot itself is complicated, as various referendums are often worded poorly".

Furthermore, because voting guidelines differ from state to state, Matthew said that Vote from Abroad volunteers were not able to provide him with much assistance and simply "repeated the same vague and unhelpful instructions".

Although he had registered to vote for the first time, he had not yet sent his ballot because of concern that it would not be counted due to a technicality.

Matthew said that he really wanted to vote in this election, because he feels the "governor and senate elections in my state are really important this year". He concluded by saying that "the [US] voting system is designed to discourage people [from voting]. It has been this way since the country was founded and it’s not going to change as neither party has the political will to do so."

Vote from Abroad will continue to hold voter registration events and provide support in the weeks leading up to the November 8 midterm elections. Upcoming ones include on this Saturday and Sunday from 12pm to 6pm at the Anglophone bookstore Shakespeare & Company and Zoom the Vote events every Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. Overseas voters can also contact +33 OH GOD VOTE to receive support.