Opinion: Registering to Vote in the United States General Election, from Canada (Part 1)

Lucy Shellhammer fills out her absentee registration form to vote in the 2020 US Election.

I was in grade 9 during the 2016 United States federal election. All predictions said that Hillary Clinton would be the winner. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of the morning of November 9th, finding my devastated mother downstairs in her pajamas, the 45th President on the television behind her giving his victory speech.

That day, I did the math: I would be 18 in time for 2020, and since under federal law, all American citizens have the right to vote in the federal election, no matter where they currently live or where they were born, I would be eligible to vote.

Because I live in Canada, I’m voting with an absentee ballot.

Voting by mail and absentee voting has become a hot topic. With countries in quarantine, and with rising cases of COVID-19, voting by mail is quickly becoming the norm in many elections. The process makes voting more accessible for all citizens, especially those who cannot leave the house for one reason or another.

Particularly in the United States, the high infection rate makes voting in the upcoming federal election in person daunting. 

Amid the push for mail-in votes are also concerns of voter fraud raised by the Donald Trump and his Republican party. And while not entirely unfounded, instances of voter fraud are rare, and thus it is the best option for an American citizen living in Canada, like me.

On paper, voting absentee is a fairly simple process. However, problems arise when individual states have completely different rules as to how

The most important element of voting absentee is knowing the rules for your state. 

In some states, foreign-born Americans are allowed to register to vote using the same address as their American parent – despite never having lived there – and will receive a full regional ballot. In other states, that is not allowed, and those same foreign-born citizens may only have a federal ballot, which they can only cast in favour of a presidential candidate. 

Before I turned 18, my dad and I had wondered if perhaps I would be able to vote in Pennsylvania, where he is registered, rather than my home state of California. This would have been important for a couple of reasons.

California has voted Democratic reliably since the 1990s, but Pennsylvania is a swing state: a state that is unpredictable which way the residents will vote every four years. Swing states can be the key to winning an election, as they were in 2016. If I voted in Pennsylvania, my vote could have more influence on the overall result than it could have in the west.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of the states that do not allow citizens who were never residents to vote in that state, so I registered in California.

To register to vote when you do not live in-state, you must fill out the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA). It tells the government where you are registered and where to send your ballot. 

Screenshot of a Standard Form 76: Federal Post Card Application

I quickly ran into a problem when I realized this process is not outlined clearly anywhere I could find. I tried for 30 minutes to find the correct information and the FPCA in order to complete my first adult task all on my own. 

I ended up sitting cross-legged on the floor of my dad’s office, the California voter-registration website open on my computer, filling it out with his help.

While my dad completed his own application, I badgered him with questions, and he grew more and more annoyed. In my defense, “Hey, dad, what are the last 4 digits of my social security number?” is a pretty valid question.

The information the form requires is fairly basic personal information, including name, birthdate, gender, and address. 

After that, there was a series of yes-or-no questions about how I had filled in the form: swearing that it was all true, that I am/will be 18 by the time of the election, that I’m not disqualified from voting due to being a felon or not mentally competent, and so on.

When the last box was checked, I was given a PDF file to print out that included the address to which I was to send my form. My dad and I put our applications in the mail and waited.

It felt weird to answer the questions. It made the election feel more real. Four years ago, election night and the results felt like a waking nightmare, as have the following years since. Suddenly, knowing I was going to have a say, have my name mixed in with millions of others, made me wake up. 

I guess it started to make the process of voting a lived experience, and suddenly I was more connected to the US than I was from reading news reports and hearing about what was happening.

I received an email a couple weeks after I mailed my application telling me that I was officially registered. 

My dad got his ballot in the mail on October 4th, and he came to show me what the envelope looked like. That night, he opened it, tipped the contents onto the table, and went through what everything was with me. 

Inside was another envelope and his ballot.

It was surreal to see the names “Joseph R Biden” and “Donald J Trump” and their running mates on the paper. There were other names on it, too: Jo Jorgensen of the libertarian party, as well as the Pennsylvania candidates for Congress, the State Senate and State House of Representatives. 

My dad took out a pen and filled in the circles next to the names of the candidates he was voting for. That was it. He was done. He had voted in perhaps the most crucial election in current history, and it took him about five seconds. He sent it off the next day.

It threw me for a loop. I guess I had built it up in my head as being this incredibly stressful, long process (despite having known who I was going to vote for since 2016), and to see it unfold so quickly really put things in perspective.

Voting is easy. As easy as filling in a couple of circles on a page.

My ballot has not come yet; I suppose it has farther to travel. When it gets here, I now know what to do, and I’m pretty excited.