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Illustration of Californians living outside the U.S.

How are Californians living abroad getting their ballots back to the US?

on November 6, 2020

In her 75 years, Dianne Starr has never missed an election and certainly would not have missed this one.

Having moved from California to the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia 10 years ago, Starr was up against a series of voting barriers, one of which was a scarcity of fax machines. 

The State of California accepts the return of the ballots only by fax or mail. But because of concerns about delays in the mail, Starr decided to fax her ballot back to California. “Voting by mail In 2016 it cost me a bloody fortune,” she said. “And I didn’t trust it.”

At first, Starr was going to fax her ballot from the U.S. embassy in Saint Lucia, but she discovered that there is no U.S. embassy there, only on the nearby island of Barbados.

She then went to the Mexican embassy.  “I hate Trump so much,” said Starr. “I was not giving up until I could vote.“  Unfortunately for Starr, the fax machine at the Mexican embassy did not exist. 

Finally, Starr found a store in the city of Castries where she eventually faxed her ballot. 

Starr is among nearly a dozen Californians living abroad who all said they took extra measures this year to make sure their ballots were counted in the highly contentious presidential race, where the fate of the presidency has yet to be decided.

“What happens in America actually affects people of the rest of the planet,” said Katherine, a San Diego painter who now lives in Italy. “I see it as a responsibility to vote there.”

Katherine, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, said she sent in her ballot by mail because she does not have access to a fax machine. “I don’t have a fax machine at my house,” she said. “So I decided to go to a newsstand and send it from there.”

David Smith, a Californian currently living abroad in Canada, acknowledged that it’s not easy finding a fax machine. “It’s sort of old technology. Many people don’t have access to effect change any more.” But he managed to find a machine at his place of employment and sent his ballot back early and notified as arrived on September 29. 

Having some difficulties with her fax machine, Lora Sharnoff, who is originally from Los Angeles, has lived in Tokyo since 1975, decided to send in her ballot early by registered mail. “Because of the pandemic, airmail from Japan can take up to a month to arrive in the USA,” she said.

Sharnoff acknowledges that she could have taken the ballot to a drop box at the U.S. Embassy in Japan. But she said the cost would have been the same or more than that for registered mail. “American elections have worldwide repercussions,” she said.

The challenge was the same for Therese Marie Bechetoille, a U.S. citizen voting in San Mateo County who has lived in France for 20 years. “Normally, I would go to the embassies … and drop it off,” she said. “Now, with COVID-19, you have to make appointments.”

In 2016, Bechetoille mailed her ballot but was told by someone the elections department that it never arrived. So, she filled out another ballot and faxed it back to be counted.

Sandra Van Auken, a Californian who now lives in Victoria, Australia, mailed in her ballot this year. And she recently learned that her ballot was accepted.

“And I don’t know what I would have done if they wouldn’t have gotten my ballot,” she said. “A vote was always but for this particular election,” said Van Auken. “It really made a difference.”

The illustration above was created by Eleonora Bianchi.

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