Columns

Johnson ’19: Absent absentee votes

By
staff columnist
Monday, November 28, 2016

I rode the RIPTA downtown Nov. 8 wearing a white shirt (to salute suffragette pioneers) with the words “cats against catcalls” (to separate my body from President-elect Donald Trump’s  pussy-grabbing world) to vote in my first presidential election. My eyes unexpectedly pooled with tears when I slowly colored the bubble next to the first female major party presidential nominee. That title is now almost ironic — a mocking mouthful for too devastating a loss.

This year, we watched an unraveling. For some, partially camouflaged masks of bigotry unraveled. For me, the rope keeping me docked slowly and then uncontrollably unwound, setting me adrift. I can’t quite imagine equality in a country that somehow elected a sexual abuser as president rather than an overqualified, intelligent and reputable woman. Who else could achieve the title Madame President if not Hillary Clinton?

My only sense of control in the weeks before Election Day was over my own vote. I have power in my vote, a privilege that many still do not have. Trump personally attacked my identity as a woman, but women of color and Muslim women, among other marginalized groups, will face realities that I will never have to experience. I carried the weight of the moment as I rode to the polls, and I carried a fear of the sleeping, angry dragon that Trump awoke.

I had not planned on riding the RIPTA downtown Nov. 8, but the absentee ballot I had requested multiple times was absent from my Brown mailbox. I first requested my Minnesota ballot in September. I even sent absentee information to my friends who are similarly absent from Minnesota so that they didn’t miss the registration or request deadlines.

But my own ballot never arrived. I requested another mid-October, and by the time I realized it would not arrive, it was too late. It is ridiculous that my voice against every systemic form of oppression was lost in the mail.

The only reason I was able to vote at all was a helpful Facebook post explaining how Rhode Island residents could register and vote for just president and vice president on Election Day. But still, my conviction to do my civic duty was not enough to successfully vote down the ballot in my own state. That is unacceptable in a modern democracy.

Even if I had received my absentee ballots, the process is not as simple as it should and could be. For the first time, Minnesota implemented no-excuse voting, which loosens the restrictions on those allowed to vote absentee. This is a step forward in accommodating those who cannot physically show up at polling booths, but mail-in votes still need a Minnesota resident to witness and sign the ballot. For some, the process is feasible — I served as a witness for a first-year from my hometown (though I did write my driver’s license number in his box by mistake). But for my brother, finding a Minnesota resident at his school in upstate New York was much more difficult, and he never returned his ballot. Many of my Minnesota friends found the witness requirement to be a surprise and the voting instructions to be confusing. Even trying to figure out which other states have a witness requirement like Minnesota is absurdly difficult — highlighting the futility of navigating such rules. Still, I discovered that at least Alabama and Wisconsin have similar requirements. If requiring witnesses is supposed to ensure a larger number of legitimate ballots,  eliminating the need for a witness would actually serve our elections better.

Exit polls show that millennial voters generally supported Clinton, which is encouraging for the Democratic Party in future elections, even if you’ve developed national polling trust issues in the past weeks. College students are an impassioned bunch with a high probability of voting absentee, and they should be able to absolutely and easily vote without the systematic issues we saw this year. The Blognonian published an article recounting stories of lost ballots, including one student’s discovery that it was Mail Services, in fact, that had lost her ticket. Some students at Harvard flew home to vote when their absentee ballots never arrived . Students at Temple University resigned themselves to not voting at all because ballots were lost.

The absentee ballot process and the trend of lost ballots failed many college students this cycle. But we are a small and relatively privileged bloc, and our lost ballots are one of many greater systemic failures. We have seen horrors this campaign year (electoral college aside) and must now ask: How can we look forward and prevent electing horror when the popular voting system fails us? My ballots still have not traveled to mail services, but so much more has been lost in this election. If they ever do arrive, perhaps it will be an omen that our country can recover any lost progress, but until then, I sit in my drifting boat and watch a burning shore.

Grace Johnson ’19 can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu.

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