In my Jewish home, growing up, I learned that voting was a primary mitzvah, the mark of a responsible human being. In 1980, the first US election after I came to Israel, I tried voting. I wasn’t a citizen here yet. My absentee ballot arrived from California two days before the election, with a punchcard and a little curlycue of a wire to punch the chads out. Mail was taking about two weeks to get from Jerusalem to Los Angeles in those days. There was no way I could get the ballot back in time. For a while, I used the curlycue to clean my garlic press.
After that I didn’t try again for years. Experience showed that I probably wouldn’t succeed. Besides, like Haim, I felt that my life was here. I voted and protested here and wrote about Israeli politics, and called my wife every two hours when I had reserve duty in the ninth month of her pregnancy. In the ancient days of the 1980s and early 90s, I got my news of America from the foreign page of Ha’aretz, in Hebrew, in small doses. Why should I vote over there?
In 2004, I changed my mind. In the Internet era, with a journalist’s appetite for news, I knew more about what was happening in US politics than most Americans did. In 2000, a few hundred votes had made the difference between a qualified president and one who was making matters even worse in the Middle East than back in America. This time, I registered online, got a ballot early, and sent it back by three-day express mail, and damn the expense.
Is it right for me to do so? Is it fair, as Abu Haim asks?
From the point of view of the American polity, I’m an ex-pat. The rules of American elections allow for absentee ballots. For those who’ve asked, we ex-pats are registered in our last place of residence in the U.S. We’re also required to file tax returns – and to pay American taxes. True, we get certain tax breaks, but I assure you, our loopholes are nothing compared to those of the average hedge fund manager, and they’re allowed to vote. I have to pay social security tax on the self-employed part of my income, though the current administration’s economic policies daily reduce the forecast of what I’ll get in return. If we need any help sorting this, there are companies who specialize in taxes for expats. As I think I learned in third grade: No taxation without representation.
Social security is a huge thing in American lives, it helps out during retirement age, it can provide financial relief to those who are in serious need and even spouses of divorce can access it. Social Security and divorce are not mentioned a lot in relation to social security payments but it is an avenue. It can be hard to follow all the rules and regulations, like my tax I have to pay (as it’ll always change), people can be confused and need extra help. Being an ex-pat can be difficult as you don’t know where you fit in with American laws and regulations, from Social Security to voting in the upcoming elections, there are different rules for us to follow and they are changing constantly.
The rules of American elections are admittedly bizarre. A few hundred votes in Florida were worth more than thousands elsewhere. Every state has different rules on disqualifying ex-cons, rules that often have racist consequences. In some states but not others, an absentee ballot is valid even if the voter mailed it in and then died before election day. (LBJ would be blissed to know that there are legal ways for the dead to vote.) These are strange laws, but they list me and other permanent expats as qualified voters. Both major political parties have active branches for expats. The voting rules and tax policies of my native country both inform me that I am considered part of the polity.
And, yes, US elections have a deep impact on my life here. It’s true that in the 21st century, every country effects every other. But the relative weight of the impact is not equal. The United States is the Empire. It is the blind elephant in the china shop of the world. Its effect is immense, its wars are fought far from its shores, and most of its citizens, safe behind the moats of the Pacific and Atlantic while their newspapers shed foreign coverage , have no clue what their government is smashing in its stampede. If we expats have been permitted to bring some expert knowledge to the electoral process, we should do so. Especially when we have a chance of getting the ballot on time.