Voting as a Nomad: My Frustrating Attempt to Vote in the 2021 Dutch General Election

I have never once voted in a Dutch general election. Not because I didn’t want to or didn’t try. But because in the Netherlands, they make voting near impossible for homefree people.

A Short History of My Voting Attempts

Back in the summer of 2009, I turned 18 and became eligible to vote. I was still living at my mom’s home back then. My voting card – not ballot! – for the 2010 Dutch municipal elections arrived at my mom’s somewhere in February 2010. I remember voting in that election. In June/July 2010, I took the final exams of Dutch high school. There was the 2010 Dutch general election a few months later in June, but I have no memory of voting in them even though I still lived at home and it would have been easy.

In the summer of 2010, I left for university and registered in Maastricht. There were provincial elections in 2011 in March, which I didn’t vote in because I don’t think I neither knew nor cared enough about the provincial politics of Limburg. Perhaps I also felt that I couldn’t out-vote the Racist Party, which is very popular in that area. By then, I think I’d decided to only vote in the general election.

Then in late August 2012, I arrived in Aarhus in Denmark for my semester abroad. The cabinet fell and an early general election was called. I wanted to participate in the vote. On the 12th of September, that election happened. In the weeks beforehand – but clearly too late – I tried to vote from my new address in Denmark. I emailed the embassy in Copenhagen and tried to figure out how it works with the help of my mom. But since the voting coincided with my move and registration in Denmark, my voting card presumably arrived at my sublet student house in Maastricht. Voting cards arrive a mere two weeks in advance of the election. No one there could open my mailbox and send it to me to Denmark so that I could authorize someone else to vote. Not in that short time.

nils schirmer unsplash Aarhus rainbow museum

So I couldn’t vote even though I wanted to. This was one of the many events that made me upset and disillusioned with civics and democracy. Meanwhile, someone taught me how to hitchhike, dumpster dive, and couchsurf. I became increasingly non-conformist, anti-establishment, and anti-Dutch. Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all.

A year later in November 2013, I quit university altogether, quit participating in society in an acceptable way, and left. This whole voting experience wasn’t the final straw. But it was one of the many things that slightly filled my bucket of tolerance until it overflowed. Voting is dumb, was my official position from then onward.

Though homefree, my address registration was still in the Netherlands during the next years.

2016

Then 2016 happened. The year in which voters collectively lost their minds and voted for really dumb shit. I kept thinking that if I were a citizen of X or Y, I would have gone out of my way to vote in these elections or referenda. There would have been an opportunity to vote in the nonsensical referendum on a trade agreement with Ukraine – something the EU has with Chile as well, which was where I was during the vote. But if I couldn’t figure out how to vote in a general election, how could I possibly figure out a referendum?

Pass.

Then in 2017, I was hitchhiking from Ica/Huacachina to Paracas in Perú with Jonas on the 15th of March, when our drivers Oscar and Mauricio put me on the spot and asked me if I had voted today in the Dutch general election. I hadn’t. It hadn’t crossed my mind. I didn’t know there was a general election and I was happier off not knowing this. So I told our drivers that I couldn’t vote while traveling, which wasn’t a lie. Nonetheless, they both gave me the side-eye.

Still, they were surprised by my indifference, which is probably because voting is compulsory in Perú from age 18 till 70. Peruvians even have to vote in general elections from abroad, so to them, I must have looked like an anarchist, which… well… might become my official stance if they keep making voting impossible.

1920px-Is_voting_compulsory_in_national_elections.,_OWID.svg

By Our World In Data – https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/compulsory-voting, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86921550

To be clear, I was still living the high-chaos life in South America in 2017. Ducks-in-a-row-wise, I still wouldn’t have been able to pull it off even if I were sitting in one place for a while. On top of that, I was very pessimistic about voting during that time.

What Changed in 2020?

Well, to be completely honest, and this might be sappy: I thought it was a little inspiring when the voters of the USA banded together to get rid of T***p in November 2020. Excluding what happened in the months after that election, even a cynic like me felt a little teary-eyed when the results rolled in.

Extra context: I have many US-American friends living outside the USA. They were all posting on Facebook about their voting from abroad adventures. The sheer joy they had when they dumped their proto-dictator made my individualist-bad-at-teamwork ass want to become a part of something bigger.

philip goldsberry I voted sticker us elections stock photo

While stuck in Malaysia during this pandemic, I was in a better position than ever before to vote in a general election. Though I didn’t have an address to call my own, I still had relative stability. Then in mid-November, I Googled when the next general election would be in the Netherlands: March 17th, 2021. Wow, that’s soon. I tried to look up how to register for it, and the internet said that voter registration for citizens abroad would open three months before the election day. So I made a note in my calendar (!) to arrange a Skype session with my mom to talk it over. I knew she wouldn’t suppress my vote.

Contacting Mom

My mom is so organized I felt deficient my whole life. Like there was no point in trying to become organized because whatever I did would still look like garbage to her and my extended family. But they are always willing to help me over the hurdles of bureaucracy whenever I’m in need. I needed their help getting back on my feet in 2017/2018 when I returned to university. And they were there for me far beyond the bare minimum.

So to vote in the 2021 general election, I turned to her again without shame to figure out how it works. First off, I learned that the elections are always in March. I vaguely remembered learning that in civics class over ten years ago.

Then came the big issue of how to vote from abroad as someone who’s not an emigrant or an expat. Technically, I’m on vacation. Dutch people vacation a lot. There are also many many Dutch people who make a world trip of more than a year when they’ve retired. Those people don’t deregister from the Netherlands and since they’re old they’re probably hell-bent on voting.

My Attempt to Vote in the 2021 Election

Toos Deserves La Chancla

I was super early with all this.

Since things were unclear as fuck, I used the contact forms on some websites to ask targeted questions. Though the number of characters on the stupid form limited me, I managed to formulate this question:

“I’m a resident in the Netherlands but I’ll still be abroad during the elections. I want to vote without registering myself as “voter outside of the Netherlands” because I don’t want to lose my health insurance. I don’t have an address outside of NL. What do?”

I first received this email, which I first thought was addressed to my dad, who identifies as a meneer (sir). Never mind sleepyhead Toos, they managed to write me an email that didn’t answer my question at all. Of course, I had already read the page she linked to, which at the time of publishing is now a lovely 404 error. I’m confident Toos was happy with their handling of this case. A job well done 😌

dutch gov fuck up 2021 voting nr 1 elections

A Tour of the Dumb Bitch Juicery™ of The Hague

But this isn’t the end of the absolutely strange communication from these government offices. Based on the cryptic email from Toos, I filled in a form to authorize my mom to vote for me. I signed it, sent it to her, let her sign it, and add a passport copy of hers. It was all a lot of maneuvering for both of us, only for me to receive this email, calling me “Mrs. Meijs.”

dutch government fuck up nr 2 voting from abroad elections 2021

What the fuck?

I emailed this Andrea person back that I’m not Mrs. Meijs. The real Mrs. Meijs might now be waiting for a very important email that never arrived because of this sudden identity switch. Is this The Parent Trap, but stupid?

I also asked what the status was of my authorization. Andrea’s colleague Sarah apologized for the error and told me they hadn’t received any authorization request from my mom and me. “Send it again” was the message. My mom now took the lead and resent all the stuff.

A reply from a certain Erick, who wanted to clear this mess up, said the following:

“In this moment you’re not a voter outside of the Netherlands. That means you can’t vote from abroad. We have a form to request authorization to vote that we can’t process, because you’re not registered as a voter outside of the Netherlands. By filling in, signing, and sending a registration form you can be admitted as a voter outside of the Netherlands, if you’re staying abroad.

The base register shows you’re registered at a Dutch municipality. Even if you fill in a registration form, we can’t admit you as a voter outside of the Netherlands, because you’re still registered in the Netherlands according to the base register. […]”

Which one is it, Erick? You can pick one.

The email included a request to call with me, like, on a phone. We don’t do such things anymore. My mom knew I wouldn’t spend money or time some seven timezones away to talk over my situation with someone who can’t grasp it and can’t possibly provide a solution. That sounds like a lot of emotional labor just so this guy can learn something new about ‘millennials’.

However, my mom – a paragon of patience – did have the energy to call with them. She pleaded passionately for changing the Dutch electoral law into something more 21st-century-esque, especially since the pandemic created tens of thousands of new potential remote workers with Dutch residency and the technical right to vote in general elections. They will not ever have an address abroad. Their voting passes will wither away in their unopened letterboxes. Meanwhile, the unworldly and ultranationalist portion of the Dutch voters has their views over-represented in the upcoming elections.

denise jans dutch flag clogs stereotype nationalism

Dutch ultranationalism as imagined by those pesky foreigners.

As long as the electoral law doesn’t change, someone who’s traveling an ecologically-responsible amount of time and who doesn’t have a fixed address abroad simply can’t vote.

The Solution: How my Mom used to Vote for my Dad

Back in the olden days when my parents were still together, my dad used to authorize my mom to vote for him. Two weeks before the election, they’d receive their voting passes. He’d fill in on the backside of that paper that he hereby authorized my mom to vote for him. She’d take both their voting passes to the polling station, receive two ballots, and vote twice: once according to her wishes, once according to his.

This is completely legal in the Netherlands.

They were registered at the same address in the same municipality in the Netherlands. He worked a few towns over. Why did he authorize her to vote for him? Well, according to my mom, he did that because he didn’t want to waste his time queueing at the polling station. I understand the sentiment.

Apparently, my grandma also used to do this for my grandpa and my mom would vote for both her parents if they were on holidays during the elections. The maximum number of people you could be authorized to vote for was two before the coronavirus pandemic. Now for the 2021 elections, they raised this number to three to protect vulnerable people from catching the virus.

glen carrie unsplash voting stock photo face mask covid 19 pandemic

So I asked my mom if it would be possible to send my voting pass to me wherever I am in the two weeks before March 17th, let me sign it, and then send it back to her. She said that’s possible, though I’m not sure how the Dutch mail system feels about sending voting passes abroad and back. We’ll see about that.

Of course, this raises the question of why we’d risk sending the ballot to the UAE and back when all we need is a simple signature. The over-reliance on signatures in the 21st century is another such example of producing the dumb bitch juice and drinking it too. The signature is literally ~5521 years old. Why haven’t we moved on to something a bit more… how to put this… hard to forge?

What Should Change in the Netherlands?

♥ 𝔾𝕖𝕥 𝕣𝕚𝕕 𝕠𝕗 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕞𝕠𝕟𝕒𝕣𝕔𝕙𝕪. 𝕃𝕠𝕨𝕖𝕣 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕧𝕠𝕥𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝕒𝕘𝕖 𝕥𝕠 𝕤𝕚𝕩𝕥𝕖𝕖𝕟. 𝕄𝕒𝕜𝕖 𝕒𝕝𝕝 𝕔𝕠𝕟𝕥𝕣𝕒𝕔𝕖𝕡𝕥𝕚𝕠𝕟 𝕗𝕣𝕖𝕖 𝕠𝕗 𝕔𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕘𝕖. ♥

Yes, but in all seriousness: it’s time to move to digital voting. Paper voting shouldn’t disappear in the coming 30 years of course to accommodate those who resist change and technology, but it’s time. I don’t dislike the Estonian system. But I don’t know, just do something and figure it out. Unfortunately, the Dutch government has a track record of gloriously fucking up IT projects and turning taxpayer money into confetti—which is something my dad has lots of opinions about.

Ideally, it should become easier to vote, not harder. What’s happening to homefree people is essentially voter suppression. And this should especially become easy for Dutch students who are doing an exchange program abroad; voting can become a life-long habit when people start doing it at a young age. Especially students within – but not exclusive to – the EU should be able to get their hands on their ballots. They’re often between addresses, which makes timely registration virtually impossible. As a spokesperson for young people: we also don’t trust snail mail.

Security Questions

Voter fraud from the bottom to the top tends to be rare and ineffective. When we’re talking about rigged elections around the world, it’s not Freek and Suus conspiring to take grandpa’s vote without his knowledge that sways the results of a national election; it’s people who already have power such as shitty political parties who do the frauding or encourage their minions to do steal votes.

Every general election year, it’s the same shitty circus of people asking why we’re still counting votes by hand and not casting them by machine, and why we can’t vote online. And every year it’s the same shitty answers of how the 2006 voting machine controversy traumatized ‘the electorate’ and how voting online would be insecure, shitty for privacy reasons, and exclude the elderly and technophobes.

arnaud jaegers unsplash voting paper technophobe

As for privacy, perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Asia, where people are supposedly less concerned with it. For example, many Asian countries rolled out successful corona tracking apps in the first months of the pandemic, whereas the Netherlands and other EU countries procrastinated and cast doubt over their own product until it simmered out and became a non-topic.

‘The electorate’ is very concerned about votes not being anonymous because there’s a double anonymity requirement in the Netherlands: the gov can neither know if a specific individual has voted nor for whom they voted. While I agree with the second requirement, the first seems impractical for digital voting as well as location-dependent voting; as if there aren’t a bunch of CCTV cameras picking you up on the way to your polling station, from which one can infer whether one voted or not. More importantly: who cares if you, yes you, voted or not? Is this individualism gone so far that people think someone gives a shit about your one vote? Here’s a saying that’s a Dutch favorite:

De wereld draait niet om jou — the world doesn’t revolve around you

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to divide the voting system into two ways: the old analog, location-dependent, red pencil, hand-counted way to vote and the new digital, location-independent, touch screen, computer-processed way. In the end, it’s about giving people – all people – a choice.

 

/rant

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Some free stock photos by Phillip Goldsberry, Nils Schirmer, Bernardo Lorena Ponte, Glen Carrie, Arnaud Jaegers and Denise Jans from Unsplash

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