I am in the grip of an obsession and this has led me to commit an act which I have never seriously considered since, well, I was old enough to vote. That was back in 1972 (Nixon vs. McGovern). Having lived outside the United States for even longer (Johnson vs. Goldwater), I have always watched the great circus of American politics from afar. That my vote might make a difference to the fate of a nation always struck me as about as probable as that a lottery ticket would transform my life.
I don't feel detached anymore. Perhaps it's because I feel as if this election could make a difference in the fate of not just one nation but of many. However, once or twice over the course of recent months, I came to the conclusion that I stood a better chance of actually winning that lottery than managing to cast a ballot that would be both valid and tallied. Who would have thought being a good overseas citizen involved jumping through so many hoops? But I persisted, and it paid off. For the first time in my life, I have voted -- and not just once, but twice.
It's not that I lacked interest in elections. As a graduate student, I helped to develop a system to do what is commonplace on the American TV networks (forecast results) in the 1983 Turkish elections, which marked the country's return to democracy from martial rule. As a journalist, I followed the 1992 elections in Northern Iraq, the first time many there voted -- even if the final result was settled behind closed doors. The two main parties agreed to declare a 50-50 heat, the risk of violence being too great for either to claim victory. It was when I perceived this to be the mirror image of what happened in Florida in 2000 that I began to rethink my negligence about casting a vote.
But how to get an absentee ballot? I tried to find out by calling the American consulate in Istanbul, the city where I have lived since Bush (pere) vs. Dukakis. I had already worked out from an Internet search that I needed to submit a registration card that listed my last U.S. address, which would determine in which state I was entitled to vote. By chance, I still had the street number of the rented accommodation in Ann Arbor where I had spent a few months at the University of Michigan, but other American friends I knew were not so lucky. Like medieval scholastics counting angels on pins, we wondered about U.S. citizens (like the children of diplomats and members of the armed forces, just turned 18), who never had an address in the United States: Would they be confined to electoral no man's land?
The reason for my call was that I wanted to find out whether I had to have my registration card notarized by a U.S. consular official. Some U.S. states require this; others don't. That's when I ran into the first hitch -- and maybe I shouldn't have expected it all to be straightforward, but here's what happened: I dialed the number of the new consulate building in Istanbul and was asked, to my surprise, for a PIN number. The operator told me I could only get a PIN number by depositing $16 in a Turkish bank. No money, no advice, I was told. We got into a heated discussion, and I slammed down the phone. Only later did I learn that there is another telephone number for "U.S. citizens only" that I could have dialed to get any answers I wanted free of charge.
There is a hero in my voting story, and I hope I won't embarrass him by saying he bears a passing resemblance to Henry Travers, the actor who played the guardian angel, Clarence, in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." He is the head of U.S. consular services in Istanbul, and I happened to run into him a couple of weeks after my phone fight. He scribbled a mobile phone number on his card and handed it to me. It provided an invaluable help line.
I mailed my consulate-stamped registration card off to Michigan -- and soon confirmed that it was just as well that I'd made my inquiries. One Istanbul friend, by coincidence born in Ann Arbor, had her registration form rejected for not having gotten it notarized. After a short interval, I, on the other hand, received a reply saying that my request for an absentee ballot had been accepted and that the form would reach me "4-6 weeks before the election." Six weeks came, then four, then three. Then I began to wonder.
I also began to search the Web to see if there was another way for me to vote. I found out that there is a procedure to vote electronically intended for military personnel, which I am not. However, I had registered under rules that affect members of the armed forces posted abroad, so I thought it was worth a look. I went to Myballot.mil, studied its provisions carefully and decided that the only way to determine my eligibility was to give it a try. I filled in the online form, Social Security number and all, pushed return, shut my eyes, and fully expected John Ashcroft with a set of leg irons to come knocking on my door. Instead, I got an error message that began "Cannot find bean ssn in scope request at org.apache.struts.util." and ended 93 lines later with "PooledExecutor.java:802 at java.lang.Thread.run(Thread.java:484)." I was none the wiser.
Then the angel (his real name is John Lowell, in case his superiors are looking for someone to promote) came to my rescue again in the form of an e-mail advisory posted to the American community in Istanbul. It advertised the existence of an emergency federal ballot that allows you to write in the name of presidential and congressional choices. (You can get one online at www.fvap.gov/pubs/onlinefwab.html.)
There was a small catch. In order to get the ballot in on time, I would have had to use a FedEx-type courier service, but the Ann Arbor city clerk has an uncourierable post office box address. However, the consulate promised to expedite the ballots via its own mail service for people who came to vote in person.
So I filled out a federal ballot -- grateful to the commitment of a public servant who saw it as his duty to inform people of their rights. Grateful, too, that he had not eyed me and my ilk as possible ideological foes or been as offhand as the switchboard operator in his building who couldn't be bothered to redirect my call.
Although I was feeling relieved, a few days later I was back on the horns of a dilemma: My absentee ballot arrived.
In my eagerness to fill out the federal ballot at the consulate, I had neglected to bring along the name of the congressional candidate whom I wanted to support. Having a real ballot now gave me the chance to vote for more than just the president. But if I were to fill it in, would it invalidate my federal ballot, cancel my vote altogether or, worse still, cause me to spend the rest of my years as a fugitive from justice, having perpetrated electoral fraud?
Back on the Web site I reread the rules for the federal ballot, which I interpreted to mean that that I could fill in a normal absentee ballot and that it would void the federal ballot.
So I opened the manila envelope to vote a second time. I was surprised to discover that I felt as if I were reading somebody else's mail. Why was somebody living in Istanbul being asked to decide who should be the trustee of Washtenaw
Community College? And why did it require me to choose from a list of court of appeals judges for Michigan's third district and not the second or the first?
In the end, I decided that it was a responsible act of citizenship to leave a few blanks.