There were 28 days left until the Presidential election, and I had no idea how I was going to vote. It wasn’t my first time at the polls, but it was my first time away from the polls – that is, my first election spent attempting to vote absentee – and I couldn’t figure out how to exercise my fundamental right as an American citizen.
I grew up eager to vote, having been invested in politics at least since age 13, when a friend and I were politely asked by a summer camp instructor to refrain from discussing the impending election during our music lesson so as not to make the 10-year-old with us feel left out. A few years later, I was pounding the pavement and taking advantage of the rollover minutes on my phone plan campaigning for local and national candidates, still too young to actually tick a box on the ballot myself. I was thrilled when I turned 18 and was finally able to register.
I knew when I accepted a three-month internship in Nicaragua for the fall that I would be missing the election in November. I knew I would be away from my local polling location, with all the complications that entailed. It would be different than it had been in college, when all I needed to do was change my registration from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and join the waves of college students descending from campus onto the local churches and social halls that had been converted into polling stations. Absentee voting required a different set of forms than I had ever needed before, and overseas absentee voting required a different set of forms than even that. I read the conditions carefully and realized I needed to wait until I was actually abroad to mail in the form (presumably to reduce the risk of absentee voting fraud), so I packed the thought away for a little while along with all the winter sweaters I was leaving behind.
On my first night in Managua, having barely gotten to know my new American housemate, I asked if he’d thought about how he was going to vote while abroad. I had, and as far as I could tell we needed to find a way to get ballot request forms in the mail the old-fashioned way before we could receive our official ballots. He hadn’t put too much consideration into it, but had planned to go to the embassy that weekend anyway. I agreed to tag along, both of us assuming we could easily sort things out then. That’s what an embassy is for, we figured – right?
Our third housemate, when she arrived, seemed unconcerned about any possible complications involved in the overseas voting process. The embassy would be able to help us figure it out, she agreed, and we penciled in a casual stop at the American embassy between our plans to explore the local market [http://www.escapeartist.com/blog/exploring-the-roberto-huembes-market/] and nearest shopping mall that weekend. When Saturday came around, we made it to the mall successfully, and on Sunday we stocked up on fresh produce and household items at the mall; somehow, the embassy trip got pushed lower on our list of priorities. After all the activities we’d checked off our to-do lists, none of us needed much convincing to put off the embassy trip for anothher day. We’d go after work on Monday, we decided.
The series of tasks ahead seemed simple enough: go to the office as usual, request that we be driven to the embassy after work (rather than straight home), fill out our ballot request forms and hand them to a helpful embassy official to be mailed to our respective county elections boards, await our ballots by email, and vote. We had no idea of the obstacles that would stand in our way, from Nicaragua’s unreliable national mail service to armed guards and men in red shirts preventing us from performing our civic duty.
Our first attempt to get to the embassy was thwarted simply by a lack of communication. Although we thought we had made the necessary arrangements to get driven to the embassy that Monday evening, we hopped into the car only to learn that our driver had no idea what we were talking about. After some confusing back-and-forth with our limited Spanish and his even more limited English about needing to go to “la embajada,” we settled on a compromise: he could take us the next day, when the detour from routine wouldn’t be such a surprise.
We didn’t even get the chance to follow up on Tuesday before a woman in the office beckoned to us and apologized that we wouldn’t be able to go to the embassy that night; the company’s driver was already booked to pick someone up from the airport and would have just enough time to drop us off at our apartment before leaving. Not wanting to inconvenience anyone and not yet feeling too panicked about the situation, we agreed that the next day would be fine.
On Wednesday morning, we drove over an hour outside the city for a day of meetings. The meetings ran late, as most meetings do, and we watched the day turn to darkness on our way back to Managua, knowing that we’d missed another chance at getting to the embassy. The next day, we swore to ourselves, we would get our ballot request forms sent out, no matter what it took.
Everyone around us appeared supremely unconcerned about the increasing urgency of our mission; some even seemed uncharacteristically reluctant to help. The overall response to our repeated requests for a ride to the embassy was confusion about our motivation, followed by a shrug. Nicaraguans didn’t seem to get what the big deal was, this voting we kept going on about. Why were we in such a hurry to fill out some forms? Why bother at all? “Es necesario que votemos,” we kept trying to explain. “Es muy importante!” As the only Americans around, it was clear that we were basically on our own.
We were caught off guard when it finally came time for us to go. After lunch on Thursday, the company driver materialized by our desks with his customary cheerful, “Let’s go!”
“To the embassy?” we confirmed, and he nodded. We grabbed our passports and booked it out the door.
As we finally approached the engraved concrete sign marking the Embassy of the United States of America, my excitement was tempered by our welcome party: a uniformed guard carrying a rifle who spoke only Spanish and communicated exclusively with our driver, rather than with us. After a quick conversation that flew right over my head, we were redirected around a few corners and a little way down the road to the American consulate, where they would supposedly be able to assist us. Now on foot, we approached the door to this second government building with trepidation and were dismayed to see the sign that declared opening hours over at 3:00 p.m. Unwilling to go, but unsure what to do next, we hovered by the door for a minute until another uniformed official appeared behind the glass door. We were there to vote, we desperately tried to convey, and she nodded before stepping aside to let us through the door.
Once inside the building, we were met with the sight of a desk, some shelves, and a phone, which the guard directed us to pick up. My housemate reached for it first and began speaking, in English, to a disembodied voice that started walking us through the photocopied handout we had each been given, titled “TO REGISTER TO VOTE OVERSEAS.” There was no information on the sheet I wasn’t already familiar with from my previous research, and nothing that helped us, in a practical sense, know where to get the necessary forms and where to turn them in.
When my housemate handed the phone over to me, frustrated about the woman on the phone’s inability to understand what kind of help we needed, I tried my best to explain clearly what we wanted. We were all already registered to vote, I said, but we needed to know how to get our ballot request forms to the appropriate county election boards. Did we have to print out our own paperwork and physically mail them ourselves, I asked, and if so, how could we do that? Yes, came the answer, and we could either return a self-stamped envelope to the consulate to be mailed, or we could send it on our own. In other words, we learned nothing we hadn’t already known. We headed back to the car, useless forms in hand.
Back at the office, we immediately logged on to the website I’d already clicked through half a dozen times, each of us filling out our own ballot request form with all the necessary details: name, date of birth, social security number, home address…until we hit a snag with the section marked Current Mailing Address. The catch is this: Nicaragua doesn’t have addresses, at least not in the way Americans do and take for granted. In Nicaragua, an address is something like “the white house on the corner, 150 feet from the stoplights by the big supermarket” or “two blocks west of the lake.” While those directions are sufficient for a local taxi driver taking passengers from one familiar place in the city to another, they seem inappropriate for federal paperwork.
“It shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought as I stared down at the blank space on the page. If voting is a right, why was it also such a hardship? It seemed improbable that there was no way to request a ballot by any other method than postal mail, and yet there wasn’t. It seemed contrary to expectations for an American consulate to be staffed entirely by personnel who spoke only limited English, and yet it was. It seemed disappointing for there to be so little assistance available for citizens abroad who simply wanted to vote, and yet there I was, staring down at a form requesting a mailing address I didn’t have.
The solution, or at least what we hoped was the solution, was simple enough. We listed our office as our forwarding address and checked “by email” as our first preference for how to receive our ballots. We discovered that the Federal Post Card Applications we had printed required no postage when mailed within the United States, so that combined with the consulate’s offer to forward all election-related material to the U.S. via diplomatic pouch mail, we were able to sidestep the notoriously slow, unreliable Correos de Nicaragua national mail service and the more dependable but costly FedEx or DHL carrier options. Now all we had to do was get them back to the consulate.
Our second visit to the same drab concrete building was more straightforward. Though our paperwork specifically instructed us to tell “the guard and the greeter in the red shirt” our purpose in order to be directed appropriately, all we had to do was indicate the paperwork clutched in our hands to be waved through to the same featureless room as before. This time, there was an American soldier in Army drab standing against the wall, discussing his indifference to voting in this election with a Nicaraguan official. He wasn’t too hot on either of the candidates, he said, so he probably wouldn’t bother voting. I thought about saying something to him, but decided all I really wanted was to slip my ballot request form into the appropriate box and leave.
On our way out, we passed a man in a grey polo shirt who asked us how it had gone. It went well, we told him, glad to finally be done with the whole ordeal. As we walked away, my housemate commented, “I guess he decided to wear a grey shirt instead of a red one today.”
Technically, none of us have voted yet. The ballot request simply notifies our county elections board that we would like to receive an official ballot, and now it’s up to them to make sure we receive it. With less than a month until election day, I can’t say I’m not worried; I can, at least, say I did everything I could.