Casting my absentee ballot... and not making it easy

by Rob Richie // Published November 1, 2008
I work on voting and elections all the time (over-time, my family might say). Casting my ballot shouldn't be too tough, you'd think.

Think again. I just filled out my absentee ballot and it was rather nerve-wracking - -and certainly not user-friendly.

I'm a resident of Montgomery County, Maryland. It's quite possible that I will have to be out of the area on Election Day, so a week ago, I requested a absentee ballot. It arrived promptly, which was great -- kudos to the Montgomery County Board of Elections for promptness

I opened my packet this morning to vote. That's where things got tense. First, there's not a friendly word anywhere. Perhaps I shouldn't need one, but it wouldn't take much to indicate  that we're all appreciative of people voting, taking the time to get it right, etc. Such a friendly word might be particularly appropriate amidst all the tough language about $1000 fines and two years in jail for violating the law, oaths to sign that I'm not breaking a crime, all the do's and don'ts about what to do, etc.

As for the voting process, the instructions require you to use a #2 pencil.  I use pens myself, but fortunately I have kids who still live in the world of pencils and I raided my son's drawer until I found one that didn't need to be sharpened.

I start voting. I fill in my bubbles with my #2 pencil in one particular race. At one point I change my mind. I erase my bubble ("thank goodness for pencil", I think), then fill in another candidate. I glance back up at the directions. It says 'DO NOT ERASE. An erasure might invalidate your ballot."

Really? What now? I can't go get another ballot, but trust me, I'm still very good at erasing all these years after high school - the bubble is completely erased and it's very clear which choice I'm making.  I'm hoping it'll be okay, but maybe not. Might this be invalidated even though it's crystal clear what my intent is? I assume I'll never know.

I read the instructions and find I can't turn my ballot in at my polling place in case I'm in town on Tuesday and might be able to ask about the erasure gaffe-- only at the central board of elections. Oh well, I decide to risk it and move on.

I make it through my ballot, I sign my signature affirming I'm not committing perjury and really shouldn't be fined $1,000 and put in jail for 2 years. I put it in the envelope and then see "extra postage may be required."

So.. what does that mean? is it required or not? Would it be required only if I sent in a cheery thank you card that added weight? Is it extra because the envelope is big? Heavy? I have no idea. So of course I put on an extra stamp, not really sure if it's weight or some other thing.

Voting is precious. it's a right, responsibility and privilege all wrapped into one (and in that order). But really, we can make it easier for folks. Those voting absentee might be told "Avoid erasures. But if you do, make it really clear what you meant to do and we'll figure it out.") When we go to vote in person, we should never have to wait more than 15-30 minutes and ideally less -- anything longer means that we're just not investing enough in Election Day.

I believe we should establish a constitutional right to vote, as I wrote in a letter in the New York Times in August. I believe in universal voter registration, as I argued with my colleague Adam Fogel in a commentary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. And I believe we should make voting a celebration - perhaps a little bit of joy even could be put into the absentee voting process.