The first images which come to mind of the 2020 US Presidential Election are probably of Black Lives Matter protests, fires, and looting, Trump ripping off his mask just after returning to the White House from hospital as a Covid-19 patient, a disease which has killed over 226,000 Americans, or one of the many other dramas of 2020. Few would think of votes being sealed in envelopes and sent of par la poste from a rural French vineyard or a Parisian boulevard.
I spoke to Victoria Gonzalez Maltes, Co-Chair of Democrats Abroad France Youth Caucus, who works to help US Citizens abroad exercise their right to vote.
A resident of Paris, Victoria says it has been disheartening over the last four years to watch “the erosion of democratic norms and progressive dismantling of the achievements of the Obama administration” as well as stark contrasts in government policy between that of the US and France become more and more startling. Watching from across the Atlantic has also made it easier than for those in the US to understand how the Trump Administration has damaged the country’s reputation on the international stage.
Comfort can be taken in the fact that it is known that the Trump administration neither represents all Americans, nor their stance on cultural sensitivities, which are more closely aligned to those of Europe than the president has at times portrayed, nor the world view of most Americans.
The reality is, however, that Donald Trump is still the US President and is in charge of representing the nation to the world on a daily basis. Victoria is confident though, that any damage done over his term can be reversed by a new Democratic administration, and she and her colleagues have been working hard to make sure this happens.
In 2016, the percentage of US citizens in France eligible to vote who did, was just 7.3%. Although for reasons of which we are all too aware, Democrats Abroad have not been able to assist voters in-person as much as they would have liked. They have still done their best to mobilise voters to participate in an election on which it feels so much is dependent..
The process of voting by mail can be fairly complicated at the best of times. Assisting voters who come from 50 different states with 50 different sets of rules regarding everything from signatures to envelopes to whether the vote is cast by mail or fax, and having to do most of it online has made things even more complex.
There have been some in-person events where voters can drop by for help, outside the American Library and the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, where many famous contributors to American cultural life have stayed and spent time writing, from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One might wonder whether they could have written more surreal fiction than the real America has experienced in the run-up to this election.
Voters from abroad who have this year also had to listen to their president repeatedly suggest that voting by mail is somehow controversial. They have had to put up with their own government raising suspicion over them taking part in democratic life, rather than it being encouraged. Trump said just a few days ago that taking the time to count mail-in ballots after polling day would be “inappropriate”. Voting by mail is a completely normal process that happens every year.
It is expected the world will have to hold their breath for much longer than usual this year to hear the result. Victoria hopes that “blue wave is large enough that no shenanigans around discounting mail-in ballots will have an effect”.
Half of the overall turnout in the 2016 election has already been reached this year by early voting. There is no doubt that this is partly down to fear of going to a crowded polling station when a virus that has already brutally hit the lives of so many shows no signs of slowing down. There is a sense of urgency about this election. After a year in which it has been more obvious than ever that politics and those in power really do impact the lives of ordinary people. For many, it was no longer something abstract on the pages of a newspaper or far away in D.C. Suddenly the decisions those elected took had tangible consequences.
Lifelong Democrats, moderates, and swing voters alike are all motivated by a shared objective of removing President Trump from office, in what many would say has become a referendum on his leadership. The president has clearly shaken up political norms, torn the rule book, and acted, frankly, in a manner far from what one would expect from the holder of the world’s highest office, on many occasions.
Galvanising people to participate in politics is clearly positive, but should Biden be elected, where does all this energy go? If there is a return to ‘normal’ politics, will people have lost interest by 2024? Politics should not be entertaining, it should not be theatrical as it has sometimes seemed under Trump. However, there can also be a danger in ‘normality’, especially when it seems that so much has to change in the US at the moment, not least the reality in which black people live.
The last four years have made Americans realise that “politics doesn’t just happen in election years”, according to Victoria, and you have to keep fighting for many impactful decisions being made over a term. “Politics happens all the time, not just on November 3rd”.
Victoria and her colleagues at Democrats Abroad France are hopeful that with a winning result for Joe Biden, they will look at their country from abroad and see improvements in the lives of its people. A democratic society, in the USA, France, or anywhere in the world, should be hopeful that people like Victoria will continue to actively energise and encourage others to participate in making them a better place.