Paris was the bus’ second to last stop before the end of the Democrats Abroad Road Trip, so we wanted to make it a good one. And it was! Our voter registration drive in front of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore garnered the most success so far! Ready for the challenge, London?
On Wednesday morning, Quaide, Jacqueline, Gwendolyn, Norma and I waved goodbye to our Amsterdam hosts, Laura and Louie, before hitting the road for the next nine or so hours.
We drove in through the 19th arrondissement during rush hour. Though it was not Quaide’s first time driving in Paris, we all had to help guide him and point out motorcycles and pedestrians as they came at us from every direction. Exhausted and stressed, we pulled up to Dorothy’s Gallery around 8 p.m. where we discovered more than fifty people waiting to celebrate our arrival! Bob Vallier, Member-at-Large for DA France, Eileen Bastianelli, in charge of the group’s social media, and many others prepared a marvelous buffet for everyone to munch on as Bob introduced Dorothy, our host for the next few days. Dorothy, of Dorothy’s Gallery, explained the concept of her next expo, which will show the multi-cultural faces of President Obama’s America.
We then headed out to dinner at Pause Café, a chic bistro on the corner of the street. This, Bob explained, is where the Interior Minister’s wife likes to hang out, as well as famous French actors like Thierry Lhermitte or Miou-Miou.
The event was not until 3 p.m.the following afternoon, so I took Jacqueline sightseeing in the morning. Since it was her first time in Paris, she absolutely wanted to go see the Eiffel Tower. I’ve been up it many, many times but the look of amazement on her face made me see the Tower through her eyes – the eyes of someone who has never taken the RER or experienced a strike or a Paris winter; a person for whom Paris is still a picture book.
After a typical crepe lunch, we moseyed on over to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, walking right past the Notre Dame Cathedral. “Where are the steps?” Jacqueline asked me, falsely disappointed. “In the Disney movie, there are steps in front of Notre Dame!” We laughed and waited outside the shop for the bus and the rest of its passengers to arrive.
Opened in 1951 by George Whitman, Shakespeare and Company is a Paris literary institution, right next to the Notre Dame cathedral in the Latin Quarter.
Our canopy is too big for these narrow Parisian streets, so we were kindly allowed to use the bookstore parasol instead, which we promptly decorated with VoteFromAbroad.Org banners. It was my last time setting up the stands, as I am getting off the bus in Paris. Setting up camp has become such a habit after three weeks on the road that it destabilizes me to change my routine. I woke up this morning, confused to have to deal with this notion of “free time” again.
Finally, the stand was up and the internet running. The rain threatened, but held off on making an appearance.
Paris was a registration day full of complicated cases, which reminded us how much these voter registration drives are needed, where experienced volunteers like Quaide can give personal advice to people confused by the constant rule changes.
An old man with a large bandage on his forehead and a cane gripped in his hand sat down to register with his French wife by his side. He could not understand why he had not been receiving his ballots recently and he pulled out a yellowish, hand-written card with his personal information on it. His last address in the U.S. dated back to 1942 and his zip code no longer existed! We googled his address and found his new zip code so he could register to vote with the correct information.
Mary, a member of Democrats Abroad France, had been at the reception the night before to welcome us to Paris. She had waited to register with the Road Trip and I was honored to take her through the steps online. Mary is almost blind so I spelled out everything I typed on the screen so she could make sure it was accurate. As I read and spelled out an address written on the piece of paper she had handed over to me, she exclaimed, “No, no that’s the wrong one!” We corrected it together and she signed the paper, feeling the line I drew with my thumbs on the page.
With every question on the form can come a new and unique problem that we have to help solve. “Are you a first time voter in this state?” A man told me he was in the navy when he voted so he’s not sure where his ballot counted. When I asked for his last address in the U.S., I learned his house was obliterated by a tornado and he took a moment to answer. The last time he lived in the U.S.was more than 50 years ago – “you weren’t even born,” he adds, smiling.
A lot of the time, the problem is that people don’t have the information required when we stop them unaware on the street. Often, the solution is simple: we hand them a card directing them to VoteFromAbroad.Org and they register from the comfort of their own home. Yet sometimes, their information dates back 20, 30, or even 50 years! When asked her last address in the U.S., a woman, distressed and frustrated, asked us over and over again, “because I don’t have an address from 25 years ago, does that mean I don’t get to vote?” She said she didn’t have the information on file anywhere, which is very important for voter registration.
This woman was not the first frustrated abroad voter we’d seen on the trip. I joined the Democrats Abroad Road Trip because I had an idea of how complicated the voting process could be overseas and I wanted to help get out the information. Yet I hadn’t realized how little Americans abroad are aware of the rule changes, especially regarding regular ballot requests. As the U.S. Department of State points out:
“To vote from abroad, you have to register to vote with local election officials in your state of legal (voting) residence, AND every year you have to ask to receive absentee ballots.” (Travel.state.gov)
The process can be frustrating at times, but it is all worth it when we hear our efforts being rewarded: “a friend told me I should come register with you today,” “I’ll send this VoteFromAbroad.Org card to my son,” “I will pass on the information to all my American students.”
The Democrats Abroad Road Trip is not about the number of registrations collected at the end of the day. We travel around Europe with thousands of brochures imprinted with information about voting and the address of the website VoteFromAbroad.Org so that people passing by – American or not – tell other Americans, who tell others, who tell some more, how to request an absentee ballot and where to find help (email@example.com, for example).
The Democrats Abroad Road Trip also creates a feeling of community, being a part of a larger whole, by meeting other Americans with different experiences and many, many stories about life abroad.
Natalie is a young American who saw our stand in Paris. As she started to register with Eileen at the table behind me, I heard a yell: “first-time voter, first-time voter!” We all stopped to applaud, smile and congratulate her. Bravo Natalie!
As the Road Trip reaches its end and I register someone for the last time, standing in the rain with a computer in my hand, I feel very grateful to Democrats Abroad for having let me be a part of this experience. Perhaps I should call it an experiment: this is the first such Road Trip organized in Europe! Be they the people riding alongside me in the bus or the local teams in every city we visited, I met many incredibly hard-working and dedicated people, who all had a sense of the importance of what we are trying to do on this Road Trip.
VoteFromAbroad.Org is not just an online form you have to fill out. It is a way of staying connected and involved in what happens back home. It is a right and it is a duty. So pass on the information to your friends, your neighbors, your enemies. And vote.