Adventures of an Absentee Ballot

Sitting here in Scotland, I'm hoping my absentee ballot along with my vote for Barack Obama lands safely on the shores of America before the deadline and gets counted in my hotly contested home state of Pennsylvania. After all, the letter has got to break out of the corrupt, prison-like auspices of the Royal Mail, the government-run British postal service system that has lost tax returns mailed from 30 miles away from my home and helped itself to a Christmas gift card for John Lewis sent to my sister-in-law in Wales. Then, the letter has got to fly over the Pond on a trans-Atlantic flight to arrive in an international mail depot, probably in New Jersey and probably hard hit by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. From there, a U.S. Mail postal truck with valuable fuel has got to deliver my ballot through congested roads to my County Board of Elections office in Pennsylvania.

It may seem like this finger-crossing to cast my vote may seem due to some last-minute hand-wringing but it hasn't been left entirely in the palm of my hands. First, an overseas citizen must apply for a federal postcard to register as a voter to receive my absentee ballot. In these days of electronic efficiency, I thought it would be easy-peasy to scan in my postcard on my all-in-one printer, scanner and copier sitting next to my bathroom and send it in as an email attachment. As I wasted more time trying to get my scanner to work when it's worked every other time I've tried, I realized I'd have to trek down to the dreaded local post office.

Queues, as they long call lines in this country, are notoriously long at the post office if you catch it at the wrong time. You can do everything from buying travel insurance for your dog to selecting first-class or second-class postage after weighing every individual letter you may want to send to London. As you can see, decisions abound for every customer at the post office.

With abated breath, I mailed my federal postcard just under the deadline. With the subject of U.S. elections trickling more into the BBC News headlines and I had seen no sight of my absentee ballot, I thought I had failed. I was one of those sorry sods who didn't vote. I've voted in every presidential election since I've been eligible. This will be my sixth election.

Then one day, I got my absentee ballot through my letterbox like a Hogwarts invite. That day was last Monday, when Hurricane Sandy hit American soil and a little more than a week before the election. As I was checking in on relatives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the day, it slowly dawned upon me that my ballot needs to get in the mail, into some government's postal system.

The "efficiency" of the Royal Mail combined with the natural disaster of Sandy was going to make my overseas vote dodgy if it was going to get counted at all.

So a week before the U.S. elections, I waited outside the Royal Mail post office, which also serves as the local Hallmark store, to roll up their metal doors to open. Naturally, I was in a queue. I asked the clerk if my letter would make it to the States by Friday, November 2, which I understood was the Pennsylvania deadline. His reply was that it would normally take a week without looking straight into my eyes, a sign that he didn't quite believe in the words he himself was uttering. "Is there any way to get it there faster?" I asked. He said I could try the Express service but that would only track the letter and not get the ballot in faster. It seems like the Royal Mail might want to rename that service to a name more befitting.

What else was I to do? I was hoping the deadline might get extended due to Sandy. I slipped my absentee ballot to the Royal Mail and wished it luck.