Absentee hurdles

With the final results on Nov. 4, the work of the Voter Registration Group on campus came to a close. Our non-partisan involvement and interaction with student voters revealed both optimism and detachment; the enthusiasm of students was, at times, inspiring.

Of course, not all students were enthusiastic, but this cynicism is understandable. America’s voting process is insanely frustrating; as if the Electoral College wasn’t discouraging enough, registration and absentee voting just may put you over the edge.
The first step in the voting process, registration, is readily accessible online, with the state-by-state variations well laid out. Yet, for busy students, it is still easy to put off registering until deadlines have passed. The goal of our mass registration was to simplify this process even further.

Doing so, however, we found odd, seemingly unnecessary state-by-state differences in required information. For some, the requirements were minimal and flexible, whereas others demanded specific forms of identification or even a copy of a driver’s license or passport. Time was another concern, as county clerks and state electoral offices work at different paces, some taking weeks to finally process the information.

Once registration is finally complete, it’s onto voting. Depending on home state and address used on the registration form, your voting experience could have been a piece of cake or an absolute nightmare. For those Williams students who used their SU Box addresses, casting their vote required a ten-minute stroll to the elementary school. And, after a push of a few important buttons, a warm-hearted elderly volunteer probably gave them an “I voted” sticker, a testament to their good citizenship.

For the absentee voter, the process is a bit more complex. Instead of a physical booth and an instant confirmation, the absentee voter deals with paperwork, deadlines and the questionable timeliness of county clerks. And the absentee voter does not even receive a ballot automatically; he or she must fill out an entirely separate, state-specific absentee ballot request form first. While the majority of states required that these ballots be delivered by mail, Vermont was clearly the easiest; voters simply had to call their county clerks and request an absentee ballot over the phone. Tennessee was the worst; here, first-time voters must vote in person in an election before they are permitted to vote absentee. To think of all of those poor 18 year-old college students in out-of-state colleges who realized too late that Tennessee, the place they call home, would not grant them the ability to vote based on a unique and pointless requirement.

The tedious process of voting, the paperwork and the state-by-state requirements and exceptions are all reasons why we feel so discouraged from even bothering with the entire process. We are not being directly blocked from participation, but it certainly feels like disenfranchisement. But to the student who does question if it’s even worth the effort: I say, most definitely.

I wasn’t always such a cheerleader for voter participation. My skepticism towards the Electoral College and the bi-party system left me cynical towards the entire election process. My pessimism first started to dissolve when I was abroad in France last spring. The French could not stop talking about Barak Obama, yet they clearly hadn’t forgotten about our current president who seemed to be despised by their entire country. Often, when trying to explain to those I met in France that Bush’s popularity was extremely low in the U.S. – that few people still supported his administration, they would always demand, “Well why didn’t you vote against him?” Had I been one of the 80 percent of the of-age youth who hadn’t bothered to cast their ballot in 2004, how would I have responded to that?

Five months in another country provided a whole new perspective of America, especially in terms of civic responsibility. Registration and participation was a clear must-do, not because one political party suddenly stuck out as righteous, nor because of a newfound confidence in the Electoral system (I remain wary of both of these topics). The necessity of voting is most importantly a matter of accountability and attitude. Your individual participation is more than a tiny portion of your state’s decision; going through the process and to encouraging others to do so is the only way that we can address the epidemic of voter pessimism that’s plagued American youth.

The voting process undoubtedly needs to be amended, especially in states such as Tennessee. But considering how long changes in voting policies may need to take place, the most that youth voters can do for now is to use participation as means of cleansing the American attitude towards voting. The effect of the individual’s ballot is minimal, but as we have seen in the past, voter pessimism is contagious, and its spread can heavily effect the election. Casting our vote, despite inconvenience, both combats inaction and provides us each with the reassurance that, whatever the outcome may be, we did the most that we could.

Colette Salemi ’10 is a political science and French major from Tabernacle, N.J.