As a longtime reporter, I was frequently on the road on Election Day, assigned to travel with candidates or to work on stories that took me out of town. So I have cast a lot of absentee ballots, both in my home state of Iowa and in the District of Columbia, where I lived until last spring. It's never been a particularly memorable or difficult process--certainly no more so than visiting the polls.
For a long time, I thought the biggest voting surprise I would ever encounter was my discovery that voting in the District involved pieces of paper, not electronic booths, and that the "ballot box" was just that--a box.
That was until I moved to the city of Falls Church in May. For the first time in my life, I am living in a jurisdiction where voting is not universally encouraged as a right of citizenship.
I discovered this when I was confined to home for two months while recovering from two successive foot surgeries. Realizing I would not be able to leave the house without assistance, let alone drive a mile to my assigned voting place at the local high school, I set the wheels in motion to vote absentee.
In other years and other places, I have obtained absentee ballots simply by calling and requesting them. But when I called the Fairfax County authorities, I was told that you don't just get an absentee ballot in Virginia, you have to apply for one.
Within a few days, the application arrived in my mailbox. I learned then that Virginia requires detailed information about why the applicant is asking to be excused from going to the polls. Simply saying you'll be out of town, for example, is not good enough: The applicant must list both the destination and dates of the out-of-town travel. In my case, I had to be fairly explicit about the nature of my disability, presumably to "prove" that it really would be difficult to get to the polling place on Tuesday.
The application was also heavily laced with warnings of unspecified legal actions that could be taken against me should I engage in any sort of voter fraud. My signature, of course, was required on the form to attest that the information I provided was correct. But I also had to have the application signed by a witness who would certify that what I had just claimed was indeed true. I'd never run up against that hurdle before, in either D.C. or Iowa. And I've since found out that Maryland--right across the border--doesn't require a witness at any stage in the procedure.
I don't know who at the elections board decides whether an application is worthy enough to grant an absentee ballot, but apparently mine passed muster. A week or so later, I received a thick envelope containing the ballot itself. But if I thought the first round of forms was a tad off-putting, that was nothing compared with the ballot package, which included a two-sided sheet with 12 instructions that needed to be followed, precisely, in order to vote.
I had--once again--to recruit a witness, who "must be present for Steps 3 through 8 listed herein." Under no circumstances, I learned, should I open Envelope A, which contained the ballot, until my witness was present, but I needed to vote promptly. "A lost ballot cannot be replaced," I read.
"Remove the ballot and mark it in the presence of your witness without assistance and without letting the witness know how you vote," I was told in instruction No. 4. Fortunately, I had not opened the ballot before getting to instruction No. 5, which proved to be even more difficult than finding a witness and keeping him or her from seeing what I was doing: I needed a No. 2 lead pencil to vote--which I did not have and took several days to locate. (Remember, I'm going through this because both my feet were being operated on.)
Once I finally found the witness (I co-opted a friend who was coming over to bring me dinner), got the pencil (borrowed from my place of work) and opened the ballot, I encountered more harsh warnings about voter fraud. And even though I knew I was not engaging in any fraud, the whole exercise was becoming a little unsettling.
The ballot cast and witnessed, I then was instructed to refold it "along the existing fold lines" and put it inside Envelope B. Faced with further printed threats about voter fraud, I filled in the blank spaces in the "Statement of Absentee Voter" on the outside of Envelope B, and signed and dated the statement across the sealed edge of the envelope.
Only then was I allowed to put Envelope B into the return envelope pre-addressed to the Secretary of the Electoral Board. Thank heavens I did not spoil the ballot, I'm not a blind voter and I did not otherwise need assistance in exercising my rights. Those instructions seemed, if you can believe it, even more cumbersome and confusing.
I was so determined to vote in this, my first election as a Virginia resident, that I completed the ballot and got it into the mail as requested. ("Mail it or deliver it personally to the REGISTRAR or SECRETARY," it read--and continued in ominous boldface, "No one else may deliver it for you." Acting on the assumption that my mailman was excluded, I took the risk of asking another friend to carry the ballot out to my mailbox for him to pick up.)
I had persevered and cast my vote, but I must admit that at several points I was so exasperated by the process that I was tempted to throw the whole thing away. I couldn't help but wonder how many voters with less determination do just that--especially voters for whom English is a second language or those who have less education or are more intimidated by threats of legal action than I.
As I dwelt on the intimidation factor, I couldn't see much point in many of these requirements. At a time when voter participation is at an all-time low, public officials should be removing barriers to casting a ballot, not hoisting them. Any other approach makes voting less a right and more a privilege.
Cheryl Arvidson, a veteran Washington journalist, is a senior writer at the Freedom Forum in Arlington.
Getting That Vote
* The first extensive use of absentee ballots was for soldiers in the field during the Civil War.
* In World War II, the federal government adopted the "soldier ballot" and assigned election duties to officers. Since then, the states also have permitted absentee ballots for members of the armed forces and their families and for civilian personnel accompanying the armed forces.
* Other reasons for absentee voting now include sickness and disability. College students away from home are eligible in some states. California and a few other states allow absentee voting for individuals living 10 miles or more from the nearest polling station.
* In the 1996 election, 64 percent of all service members cast absentee ballots.
* Some 44 states and territories allow absentee voters to first register to vote by faxed federal post card application. They also allow absentee voters to request, receive and return ballots by fax.
* The Defense Department has begun testing absentee voting online to be used next year.
Sources: Encyclopedia Americana/Grolier Online; American Forces Press Service Web site; Federal Computer Week magazine; Department of Defense Voting Assistance Program