To ensure success, you need to know the process…
Since deciding to move to Portugal, we have had to educate ourselves on what to do every step of the way and voting was no different. This would be the first time either of us had voted by absentee ballot, let alone from a foreign country. But, as American citizens, it is our civic responsibility to vote and, with a general election taking place on November 3, we knew we were going to have to do our homework and figure it out. However, with so much happening this year, it wasn’t until after we returned from Porto in mid-June with our residency permits in hand that we had the mental bandwidth to start thinking about how to make that happen.
I naively thought we could just stroll in to the US Embassy in Lisbon and cast our votes. I mean, why not? We no longer lived in the USA and had no direct state affiliation. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me, however, Won suggested I log on to the US Embassy website to see what I could learn.
Hmmm, apparently it wasn’t going to be quite that easy.
It took me a few minutes to navigate the website and find the voting information link, which was buried in the “Federal Programs” menu that was within the “US Citizens Services” menu. (You’d think it would be more prominent given the fact that this is a general election year, but no matter, I found it.) After reading the directions, it seemed pretty easy; register and request your ballot, receive and complete your ballot, return your completed ballot.
The directions began with the recommendation to find out what the absentee voting process was for the last state in which you lived and were registered to vote, and then re-register. Yes, that’s correct. Per the website, “Whether you are a first-time voter or have already received ballots and voted absentee in past elections, you must register each year to participate in elections as an overseas absentee voter.” Good to know.
Thankfully the US Embassy’s website provided a link to each state’s election board portal. To request an absentee ballot from New Jersey, the last state in which we lived and were registered to vote, we were instructed to download and print a form asking us to provide our current mailing address, email address, and the reason why we were requesting an absentee ballot. No problem. We printed them, filled them out, and signed them. The next step was to mail them back, which we did on June 23. Now we just had to wait until all the political parties’ candidates were chosen so ballots could be finalized and issued.
On Thursday, September 17, Won received an email from the New Jersey Morris County Clerk of the Election providing detailed information on how to vote. Yay!! But….where was mine??? The nervous wait began, along with all the attendant, ‘what if’ scenarios. What if my request had gotten lost? What if my request had been denied? What if my request was missed? What if I had to mail another request, would there be enough time?! What if, what if, what if…???? Thankfully, less than 24 hours later, mine popped into my email box. Whew!
We spent some time reading and then re-reading the instructions. We wanted to make sure we didn’t mess this up. It’s not like we get to vote twice. Interestingly, we actually had until 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time on Election Day to vote by email, but we weren’t taking any chances.
The very next day we printed the three documents they sent to each of us; 1) a cover sheet with our contact data that included a bar code, 2) a document waiving our rights to a secret ballot, and 3) the ballot itself. We signed the waiver and made our selections on the ballot. Then we scanned each and saved them as pdf documents per the directions and emailed them back. We voted!! Yay!! All done, right?
The instructions said we needed to send the physical documents back to the Board of Election “immediately.” Per the US Embassy website, we learned that one of the options to get our ballots back on United States soil was to send them via diplomatic pouch through the Embassy. That sounded pretty cool. To do that, however, we needed to put them in envelopes addressed to the Morris County Clerk of Elections with the proper US postage. Apparently, the pouch goes to the State Department in Washington D.C. From there they are put in the US mail to get to New Jersey. Hmmm, another wrinkle. It’s not like we can run down to the local post office here and buy United States postage stamps. Turns out, the US Embassy’s website provides access to a file you can use to print an envelope that includes pre-paid US postage!! Great!!
Not so great.
Won and I spent a couple of hours attempting to get the file to correctly print. Even though we had European sized envelopes and a European-configured printer, Won’s Apple Mac printing options didn’t seem to match up. No matter what we did the envelopes came out with odd formatting or they wouldn’t print at all. I’ll spare you the colorful descriptors that were freely flowing after multiple failed attempts. We came to the conclusion that we needed to buy specific sized envelopes that matched the file format on the website to get it to print properly. Off we went to Staples to buy two packages of differently sized envelopes (just in case) along with another ink cartridge. Back home, I left Won to the task of printing the envelopes while I cleaned the house to alleviate my frustrations.
A bit later Won proudly came to show me an envelope that looked absolutely normal! Funny enough, he eventually figured out how to print on the envelopes we had in the first place. Needless to say, we now have an impressive envelope collection. Won assigned me the task of filling in the right address information on both envelopes. After such a headache to print them, I was nervous!! I didn’t screw up though and we fist-bumped in celebration.
Now, all we had to do was get them to the US Embassy to be included in the diplomatic pouch. We read that we could drop them off at the embassy gate. Sounded easy enough. As co-pilot I got to speak the magic words…”Hey Google, navigate to the United States Embassy in Lisbon” and off we went! (I love Google.) This was the first time we had driven to the embassy. We didn’t know exactly where it was, what to expect, or even what it looked like, but I had these fantasies that it was in an old Portuguese palace with large beautiful wrought iron gates and loads of Manueline architectural flourishes.
As we approached the embassy, we nearly missed it. We couldn’t see the main building from the road and the gate and fencing fronting the compound, not surprisingly, was nondescript and utilitarian looking. No wonder we didn’t see it immediately. Won however, spotted it at the last second and crossed two lanes of traffic going about 70 kph (45 miles per hour) to pull into the entrance! There were several guards on duty and they all looked extremely alarmed. I quickly lowered my window, waved the ballot envelopes outside, a la white-flag-style, and said with a VERY BIG SMILE “We’re here to drop off our ballots!” I assumed someone would simply come get them from me.
The guard closest to the car, walked over. With Sweet Pea (looking super cute) on my lap, I told the guard we had never been there before and didn’t realize it was the embassy until the last minute. I told her we nearly drove right past it! Once she realized we weren’t terrorists attempting to storm the embassy, she seemed to relax and was even slightly amused. She instructed me to exit the vehicle and go to the window of the nearby gatehouse. Before we left our house, Won asked if he thought we should bring our US passports. I didn’t think they were necessary because we were only going to drop the envelopes off at the gate. I jumped out of the car per the guard’s directions and headed toward the gatehouse.
Back at the car, the guard told Won to move it out of the way. When he attempted to park in the parking lot, he was informed that he could not because it was for employees only. Thankfully, he found a nearby side street and waited for me there.
As I approached the bulletproof window of the gatehouse I saw that it had a small slot in the bottom to slide information through. I immediately put our envelopes in the tray thinking that is what the “drop off at the gate” directions meant. The guard inside didn’t take them, but once I explained why I was there, he requested my I.D. Whoops…my passport was back home. Thinking quickly, I pulled out my New Jersey driver’s license hoping that would be sufficient. He took it and asked me to wait while he disappeared behind a closed door inside.
When he emerged, he said to take back the envelopes and enter through the door to the side. Uh oh…was there a warrant out for my arrest back in New Jersey that I wasn’t aware of?! Had Interpol put out an all points bulletin on me for some unknown reason? Not knowing what else to do, coupled with the fact that the guard didn’t seem terribly menacing or concerned, I did what he asked.
Inside the gatehouse was a small security set up similar to the airport. There were bins in which to place your things and a metal detector to walk through. He asked me to put my purse in one bin and the envelopes in another. Then he took my driver’s license and entered information into the scanner before asking me to pass through it.
Thankfully no alarms went off. Then he picked up the bin with the envelopes and asked me to take them and drop them into a locked box in the corner. OH!! It all made sense now. No one was to touch the envelopes except me so that I could see they were going into a locked container. As soon as I dropped them in I said, “Woohoo!!! I voted!!” He smiled back at me and I told him this was the first time we had voted since moving to Portugal in January and that we loved it here. He said we were very lucky to have found “paradise in Europe.” Then he went on to extol the virtues of Portugal while I chimed in with my own observations – great food, wonderful people, beautiful beaches, amazing history! He smiled broadly and said, “Welcome!!” I replied, “Muito obrigada!” (Thank you very much!) I grabbed my handbag and practically skipped out of the gatehouse and back to the car. We all waved at the guard who approached us initially and told her we had voted! She smiled and waved back as we pulled away.
The only thing left to do now is log on to the New Jersey Board of Elections website to track our ballots and ensure they are received and counted.
What an experience. We are super proud that we completed our civic duty and will be watching anxiously to see the outcome of the election in November.
If you are an American citizen, please be sure to vote in whatever way is best for you. Many people I know are voting early and dropping their ballots off in person. If you need, or prefer, to vote by absentee ballot due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to complete the process so your vote is counted and know the process in your state. And, if you happen to live in Pennsylvania, I just learned that a new law was passed this week stating that absentee ballots must be put inside a sealed envelope and that sealed envelope must be put inside a second envelope before being mailed. If not, your vote will be considered invalid! They say this is to protect the secrecy of the ballot.
For all my friends and readers who are not American citizens, but who took the time to read this post to the very end; you are amazing!! I’m sending you a great, big thank you!!
Until next time, please stay safe, stay healthy and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,