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What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell
Author Susan Morrison (left) and a friend at the Brandenburg Gate in November 1988. Photo: DPA
In a time when US absentee ballot signatures are being questioned, author Susan Signe Morrison remembers the 1988 election and a vexed incident of signature recognition.

Registered in Rhode Island, I made sure to fill out the paperwork for my absentee ballot. I thought I was so clever.

One day in early October across the Atlantic Ocean, my ballot arrived in the mail. As I sat at my ample desk in Charlottenburg, the leafy suburb of (West) Berlin, I prepared to open the large envelope. A letter cutter came in handy. Picking up a black pen—I wanted to make sure it would be official (oh bright and shining mind!) –I voted. I signed the ballot. Sighing with self-satisfaction, I laid the pen down.

Then, I read the instructions.

Oh. You have to have your signature witnessed by a notary public. Not to worry, not to worry. Americans are less fussy obeying orders than the notorious Germans. I’ll just go to the American Embassy where they have such folks to get it notarised.

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Pleased with my genius, I made my way to Jungfernheide U-Bahn station, took the U7 and changed at Fehrberlinerplatz for the U3. From Oskar-Helene-Heim Station, I walked on large cobbled streets, shiny from recent rain. I was careful not to slip on the white mulberry leaves decaying in the autumnal chill.

At the embassy, I was soon seen by an appropriately officious woman. If you can’t be officious at an embassy, where can you be? Smugly, I explained my idiocy.

“And so,” I concluded, “I was hoping someone could notarise my ballot.”

“May I see your passport?”

I handed over my blue document to ride almost anywhere. It was a golden ticket, envied the world over. Once, changing planes in Karachi, Pakistan (don’t ask), unable to avoid goats and swarms of fellow travellers, I managed finally to make it near the transfer desk.

Everyone bunched together with no concept of the queue in evidence. A small woman, I felt at a disadvantage. How could I ever get serviced? I noticed that those with similar blue pass books were being quickly processed. I then did something I’ve been ashamed of since. I used my nationality to get ahead. Throwing my passport onto the desk from four rows back, I found myself permitted to go on through.

Now, fate intervened to punish me for my hubris.

The woman looked at my signature on my ballot, signed the previous day, and that in my passport from four years earlier.

“These aren’t the same signature.”

Morrison's ID – and her notorious signature. Photo courtesy of the author. 

In disbelief, I protested. “But they are!”

“See?” she said, holding them both up for me to see.

The signature in the passport was rounded, still childish. It dated from the spring of 1984 before I began graduate school, an experience that altered my writing irrevocably. Now my signature was spiky, pointed, even illegible.

At this moment I did something I was incapable of controlling. I began to cry.

The thought of not being able to exercise my right to vote – especially for something so unjust as this – bid hot stupid tears to flood my eyeballs and trickle down my face. “It is the same signature,” I protested weakly.

How many people had protested – still protest –in embassies all over the world their innocence and their plight. Yes, mine was extremely minor. My little vote would make no difference to the world. Indeed, ultimately it didn’t.

The woman finally relented.

“I shouldn’t do this,” she said, imprinting my ballot with her stamp.

I gratefully took it, popping it in the mail.

I’d bucked the system, even though I felt as though the system had bucked me. In a letter, even my own mother said the official shouldn’t have stamped it.

My fervent hope is that others will not face the same dilemma I did. Or, if they do, they’ll be treated by an official who might do something she shouldn’t– the right thing.

Susan Signe Morrison, Professor of English literature at Texas State University, has published numerous scholarly books and a novel. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her experiences teaching in the GDR in the 1980s. She also recently talked about her experiences in an episode of the Cold War Conversations History Podcast. 


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