This year would be my fifth time voting as an American citizen living in Paris. As a registered voter in California, I received my ballot in late September. When I opened the envelope and saw rapper Kanye West on the ballot running as an Independent for US vice-president, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s a sentiment that pretty much sums up my emotional state for the entire year of 2020.
My relentless “doomscrolling” has made sure that this year feels like the worst. My teenage daughter has to remind me that it isn’t even over yet.
I know that the year isn’t finished. There are a couple of weeks left before the November 3 polling day for the 2020 US presidential elections. It seems like the whole world is anxiously watching the campaign unfold, certainly none more so than the estimated 9 million Americans who live outside of the United States.
Why the obsession?
A recent poll shows that a majority of American voters believe that the upcoming presidential election stands to be the most important of their lifetime. Many also believe that it will not be an easy, free, and fair contest. The global pandemic has changed everything about this election. It’s expected to be the largest voting-by-mail event in US history, complicated by the continuing public health crisis, disruptions in the US Postal Service, and an incumbent who has railed on about vote-by-mail fraud.
Expat American voters face unique complications and challenges. For one, we often have the unenviable position of explaining the current US political situation – from the chaotic first presidential debate, to Donald Trump testing positive, to the White House becoming a COVID-19 cluster – to our French counterparts. (Fun fact: that all happened over one week.)
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked, “Do you think he’s going to win again?” or “How is it possible that this election is so close?” or “How are there still undecided voters?”
The clock is ticking…
Then there’s the very real challenge of logistics and time. “It’s a race against time for us voting from abroad. We need to get our ballots early, we need to fill it out and send it back on time. And we need to know how to send it back correctly, or our ballot may not count,” says John Fredenberger, voting chair for the Association of Americans Resident Overseas.
Time is getting short. Unless a voter is willing to mail in their ballots through a private courier like DHL or French Chronopost, the surest way to make sure that your ballot is received in time is by fax or email. Kristi Carroll Lorin, membership chair at AARO, recommends expat American voters to check their state requirements for faxing or emailing ballots. The Federal Voting Assistance Program and the American Citizens Services Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Paris can help with faxing ballots.
Representatives from both major parties – Republicans and Democrats – in France have cited increased demand for voter help in registering and voting.
In a recent interview in Le Point, Randy Yaloz, president of Republicans Overseas France, expressed confidence in a victory for Donald Trump: “In my opinion, there is a silent majority that will come out and elect Trump. Many have said that in 2016 his first election was a fluke. What will we say when he is triumphantly re-elected?”
Amy Porter, the spokesperson for Democrats Abroad Paris, affirms that she has not ever seen such intense motivation from American voters abroad. “We’ve seen a two-fold increase in membership and three times as much traffic on our website. The French media coverage of the election has been unprecedented. We all know that the stakes are high. Democracy is on the ballot.”
Stand up and be counted
Perhaps no other group of voters is as excited as first-time voters.
“I’ve been thinking of this day for a long time, ever since my brother and I cast pretend votes in 2008″. – Erik, student
Erik, an 18-year-old student at Sciences Po Paris says he is convinced “the only way to ensure that democracy continues is to actively participate. This is especially true now, when our democracy is at its most fragile.”
Olivia, an 18-year-old student at the Sorbonne, shares this feeling of engagement: “Politics has always been in my mind growing up. It’s important for me to give my opinion on the future, and I can do that by voting. Even if it doesn’t go the way I want it, I have to let my voice be heard.”
It’s not just young first-time voters that agree that this election will be one for the history books.
Stacey, a 58-year-old legal consultant at a Paris law firm, says, “I’ve been living in Paris for 40 years, and I’ve gone through many elections. I can’t say that I voted each time. But this time, I’ve got Michelle Obama’s words in my head, when she says to vote like your life depends on it, I absolutely believe that’s true. When this is all over, I want to say I did all I could.”
Hope requires action
I get what my daughter means when she says to me, “Mom, 2020 isn’t over yet.” No matter how tired, frustrated, and saddened so many of us may feel, there’s still time left. Which means that there’s hope. Essayist Rebecca Solnit writes that hope occurs when we don’t know what will happen, and in that uncertainty there is “room to act.”
That hope was felt when I recently went to a voter help event organized by Vote From Abroad in front of Shakespeare & Company. I could overhear people talking about what they were going to do to stay engaged: volunteering to phone bank, writing postcards to voters, and encouraging their state-side friends to be poll workers on election day. Another group of people, all from California, was watching on a smartphone a tutorial on how to properly fold ballots for mailing. Hope was in the air.
The future we hope for requires us to act in the present. When I mail in my vote, joining the more than 22 million Americans who have already cast early ballots, I’ll hope for the best and work with what comes. Surely then, 2021 will be better.