We’re Not in Austin Any More, and Voting is HARD!

Date February 24, 2008

I’ve just sealed up my Ohio absentee voter ballot and put it in the mailbox for pickup tomorrow afternoon. That’s in plenty of time for the March 4th primary, and the process has been enlightening. With all of the hullabaloo around equitable access and accuracy in ballot-casting over the past seven years, getting to the point of putting a sealed ballot in the mail has certainly been interesting.

We moved to Columbus late last summer after 13+ years in Austin. There are a lot of similarities between the towns: both are the capitals of their respective states, both are the homes of the largest universities in their states, both are located roughly in the center of their states, and both tend more toward “blue” than “red.” However, the differences in the voter experience are dramatic!

In Austin (we actually lived in the City of Austin, albeit on the outskirts), voting was quick, electronic, and insanely simple. For several weeks leading up to an election — be it a primary or a general election — there were scads of early voting stations set up. It was virtually impossible to drive anywhere around town without seeing prominently displayed, “Early Voting Here: Dates X through Y.” Many of these early polling places were inside grocery stores — the stores being more than happy to give potential customers an excuse to come into their buildings. I could go to any early voting location in the county. All I needed was my driver’s license. The folding tables, laptop computers, and portable electronic voting booths were typically manned by 3-4 pleasant, accomodating retired men and women. The lines were short to non-existent.

I would drive past the local grocery store on my way home three or four times before I remembered I needed to pull up the League of Women Voters’ web site to make sure I made a reasonably informed decision on the more obscure races and ballot issues. At that point, it was just a matter of pulling in to the store one evening when the timing was right. I could be in and out within 10 minutes. I voted on election day maybe once in the past 10 years, and I never missed participating in an election.

Now shift to Columbus. Or, to be more precise, Dublin, Ohio. As it happens, I’m going to be in Texas for work on Tuesday, March 4th. With the help of Google, I quickly found the process for voting early or absentee. In Dublin, they’re the same thing: you can vote early in person by going to one and only one place, applying for an absentee ballot, getting it approved immediately, and then casting your ballot. Frankly, that one place is a fairly inconvenient location. So, I went with the second option, which was to apply for an absentee ballot by mail. This required filling out a one-page form, available on the Web, and mailing it in. Several days later, my absentee ballot arrived. That’s when the cold, wet dishrag of you’re-not-in-Austin-anymore-Dorothy gave me a rather unpleasant slap in the face.

Inside the large envelope were seven different items:

  1. The ballot itself
  2. An “identification envelope” that the ballot would go into
  3. A return envelope that the identification envelope would go into
  4. An orange Instructions to Absent Voters paper
  5. A cream-colored ATTENTION VOTERS!! insert telling me to read the instructions on the ballot itself before marking the ballot
  6. A small green slip of paper informing me that one of the Presidential candidates had withdrawn from the election, and that a vote cast for that candidate would not be counted
  7. A blue slip of paper that simply stated, in a very large font: “Please be advised. $0.97 will be required for return postage.”

Once I had cleared enough desk space to separate the important materials from the borderline silly, I settled in to complete my ballot. That was pretty straightforward — no butterfly ballots here!

Fortunately, I did not follow the instructions to the letter, as they told me to seal the ballot in the identification envelope once I had completed it. And…then…to complete the “Statement of Voter” on the outside of that envelope, which required, among other things, the “Ballot No.” I had not yet sealed the envelope, so I pulled the ballot back out and looked for the ballot number. I found what looked to be a unique number labeled “Consecutive No.” on the ballot, so I wrote that in. I also needed to provide my “ID No.” and “Pct. No.” I’m still not sure what an ID No. is, but there was a barcoded label already affixed in the “Name” section of the envelope, and it had some numbers above my name on it, so I just assumed that one of those was my ID No. and left it blank. My Pct. No. I tracked down from my voter registration card. Mind you, in all of the slips of paper that came with the ballot, there were no clear instructions about these fields.

Having been a voter registrar for a period of time in Texas, I’m vaguely aware that federal law puts the onus on the precincts to, when in doubt, figure it out. I left the ID No. blank. And, I’ll assume that if the “Consecutive No.” on the ballot isn’t the “Ballot No.” requested on the envelope, then that will get corrected in processing. But, overall, it has been a disappointing experience. I was clearly spoiled from my time in Austin.

Let me be clear. I see voting as a responsibility of every citizen. A choice not to vote is an abdication of any right to complain about the current slate of elected officials or voter-legislated laws. It does not have to be so easy that it’s a 10-minute exercise. But, with all of the technology available, with all of the years and years of trying different processes in different communities, with the fact that every community actually applies its process every 1-2 years, it just seems silly that being out of town on primary election day earned me the right to receive ambiguous material. I’ve seen it done better. It can be done better.

I’m sure many of you have had to put up with a process similar to my Ohio experience for years, and you simply accept it. I wonder what kind of shock it would be for you to move to Austin and go through an election cycle. Would you be concerned that it was so easy? That it seemed like a situation just begging for voter fraud? I just don’t know. I’ve only gone one way, and the way I went has been vaguely depressing.

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