Faking the Vote

registration formI recently had to fill out a form for something I take to be a fairly important rite of passage: the attainment of the right to vote. All it asked for was my name, address, and date of birth -- no social security number, no photo, no other proof of who I was -- except a signature in blocks surrounded by a blue-lined square. Anyone in my building who sees my name on the mailbox could have filled it out. Anyone who has seen me sign my name could have filled it out. The form vaguely reminded me of my first ever ID: the supermarket's Cookie Credit Card! And the form was as flimsy and fragile as a cutout coupon.

It's very bizarre that to register to vote you need no proof of citizenship or identification, no social security number, nothing. In a society so obsessed with photo IDs, surveillance and fraud paranoia, it's unbelievably easy to register to vote. If I want to enter any random building I need a photo ID and I have to answer multiple annoying, invasive questions from security guards. But if I want to exercise one of the most crucial privileges of citizenship, it doesn't look like I have to show any proof of who I am.

Do they do background checks Big Brother-style without telling you? When you show up to vote, the only prima facie evidence that you are you is some flimsy yellow card that anyone could be holding. Any stranger could walk into a voting booth and claim to be you. In my case, most people can't figure out from my name whether I'm a boy or a girl (which I do like). So anyone can impersonate me and go vote for Dubya or Kerry or Nader in my name! No wonder something like Florida 2000 happened. If it had happened in some third world country, it would have been the object of ridicule from the press here.

If it's so easy to fake being an American citizen, why go to all that trouble to fingerprint and photograph foreigners at airports? My 85-year old grandmother visiting me from India will get treated like a potential terrorist, but if she wants to register to vote? No problem! Who's going to check up on her?

registration formAs easy as it was to fill out the registration form, getting registered itself was more puzzling. I sent the form in July, with a big tick next to "Yes" after the question "Are you an American citizen? If No, do not continue." (Again, what would have stopped a non-citizen from casually checking the "Yes" box? And oh, how nice of them to remind us Americans as we're filling out this form that we have the hallowed privilege of being Americans! And the hallowed privilege to exercise our beloved democratic franchise when the only option is between the really bad party and the even worse party.)

So after sending in the form, I waited and waited to hear back. No reply for months. I was confused. Had they registered me or not? When were they going to respond? Or were they going to respond at all? Out of curiosity, I called the hotline in September whose number I saw in the subway ads (hey thanks, Big Brother!) and gave them my information. The person at the other end: "OK we just put you in the system -- you should get a reply in the mail shortly." I was utterly bewildered. What was my form doing for months in one of the supposedly most efficient bureaucracies in the world? Is this a secret test of your loyalty to the system -- if you want the right to vote, you better call back? Or is it a way of discouraging voters from exercising their franchise?

After I was finally registered, I discovered another roadblock to voting: party affiliation. When I first registered, I almost drew lots to choose between Democrat, Independent (not Independence!), or Green. I chose Green. Later I realized that in order to be able to vote in the Democratic primary I needed to be registered as a Democrat (oh, the shame of it!). I put in a phone request in October and got a form back saying my switch would only "come into effect" on November 11. As if the computer needed that long to figure out my switch, or some great brainstorming analysis was being carried out as to why I was switching and only then would it come into effect! So I missed the city council primaries.

So I wonder! Is our system of democratic representation a gigantic fraud if voting is easier to fake than getting into a building? If the only people registering to vote are the ones who have the patience to deal with the bureaucracy of paperwork? If in the end, less than one third of eligible young voters actually show up at the polls, then are we really living in a democracy?

Suneel(a) Mubayi, 18, was born in NYC and grew up mostly in New Delhi, India. She is going to be a sophomore at Columbia University in the fall. She has pursued spoken word performance, writing and theater acting fairly successfully all over NYC and is learning how to trash the system from the belly of the Ivy League beast.

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