One Ballot’s Journey: From a Village in West Africa to the Polls in West Virginia

GUINEA, WEST AFRICA — Tucked away in a tiny village in the far corner of Guinea, Amiti Maloy lives in a one-room, roundly earthen hut with a thatched roof, no electricity, no running water and a semi-functional solar panel to charge her phone.

Most days, it takes a village — literally — to charge her phone, dropping it by the local “charging station”, or a wooden outdoor stall where two young men run a generator to charge a majority of the village’s cell phones.

^Amiti with her student and coworker at the Let Girls Learn Conference

Amiti is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea. She spends most days teaching, leading hands-on educational camps and coaching soccer to a spirited squad of middle school girls. Her most recent initiative is well under way — building the village’s first computer center and crafting a four-year computer literacy program with three volunteers — catching the attention of Guinea’s National Ministry of Education.

The rest of the time Amiti lives like a local, tending to the village and pulling water by hand from a well, filling 12 buckets and dragging the cart home with a member from her family, often a woman with a baby strapped to her back. For each trip, Amiti retains one bucket of water — approximately five gallons — and so does this multiple times per week.

Amiti moved to Guinea in 2017, packing up her belongings from West Virginia and deploying to the French-speaking country with less than two weeks’ notice. Amiti had been inspired to do the Peace Corps by her mother, who’d never had the chance to do it herself but always admired the work. After more than a decade of politically-engaged work in Morgantown, West Virginia, Amiti decided it was time to try something she’d never made time to do before, taking the leap into service.

When speaking to Amiti, it’s no secret she’s an engaged citizen and takes her duty as such quite seriously. Despite being located halfway across the world with feeble internet connection and unpredictable electricity at best, she’s managed stay up-to-date on the political goings-on in her West Virginian residence from afar, reading online newsfeeds, reaching out to old friends and listening to the BBC stream through her crackly radio.

Amiti knows the bills on West Virginia’s Senate Floor, she knows the candidates running for State Legislature and she knows that often local politics — more than national — hold the largest impact on communities.

She also knows that being registered in the politically-torn state of West Virginia matters, and that safely casting her vote — no matter from how far away — matters.

So when it came time to vote in the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections, finding a way to make sure she could — all the way from her tiny village in a country with no postal system — was critical.

In late 2018, when West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced that a mobile voting pilot would extend to 24 counties for the Midterms, Amiti received an email from her County Clerk saying she had the option to vote using her smartphone and an app called Voatz. The program was new, and it was fully optional. She still had the option to vote via mail-in paper ballot, but she didn't have access to a printer; she also still had the option to vote via email.

“But I didn’t feel that email was as protected, or that my vote would actually be counted because, you know, it’s so easy to miss an email, so easy to miss a vote when there’s tons of them going through,” Amiti says.

So Amiti went with Voatz, downloading and troubleshooting from her tiny village’s spotty internet connection, and verifying her identity against the State’s Voter Registration Database of mobile-eligible voters.

^Amiti lives in the far northeast corner of Guinea, near Mali, where electricity and cell service are limited.

Word had gotten around to the other volunteers. Earlier that year, a group of them had rallied to print absentee ballot request forms for all volunteers from the capital, where there was a printer, a scanner, and a diplomatic pouch mailing system through the U.S. State Department. Traveling to the capital city for many volunteers was a three-day journey by car, so this group of volunteers did whatever necessary for each to remotely submit their request form — some states required a scanned PDF, some required a picture and an email, some required fax, while others, the biggest gamble of all, required physical mailing from Guinea.

“When I told my friends that I was going to get to vote with my smartphone and showed them the app, it drew a lot of attention — specifically from one volunteer from Florida who was extremely jealous. He was like ‘How? You’re from West Virginia! How is it that West Virginia has something that Florida doesn’t have?’ He asked me questions about the identity verification stuff and he was like ‘Woah, it’s doing a retinal scan! It’s doing this! It’s doing this!’"

"You know, most of my friends didn’t vote because it was too complicated with the way the mail is here — or isn't here, really. Most of them were very jealous and hoped that they could get the chance to vote this way someday.”

^Amiti’s post on Facebook (October 22, 2018) with a screenshot of her mobile ballot, ready for voting.

Amiti visited her ballot in the Voatz app several times, making sample selections, then exiting the app before submitting. On occasion she lost her internet connection — “but I never lost my chance to vote, which I was worried about. When I logged back in, my ballot was still there, waiting to be submitted up until the deadline, which was always very comforting.”

When Amiti finally decided to submit her vote, it was after class — in her hut. She had just finished teaching a full day of school, and mentioned to her students that she was voting after class.

“They’re familiar with the idea of voting, and thought it was cool.” For Guineans, voting is a recent phenomenon. The country recently became a democracy in 2011 after 25 years of military dictatorship, and 25 more of communist rule.

“I voted as close to Election Day as I thought possible in order to be as informed as possible, but also a day with good cell service (not during the monthly service blackout periods) and with enough time to email or contact if something did go wrong.”

She made her selections, checked and re-checked her answers, pressing “Submit” and using her biometric key to send it off.

“I was still a little apprehensive that it would go smoothly but there was no need — it was a breeze.”

^Amiti’s post on Facebook (November 2, 2018) four days before the Midterm Elections with her submission confirmation.

“After I submitted I got a receipt right away with a confirmation that it was counted and a printout of my votes, which is more than I get when I go normally to vote, where I never get a copy of what I sent. I reviewed all my choices, thoroughly. It felt much more private than having a ballot specifically sent to you and you emailing it back, you know?

“Honestly it was much easier and much less painful than regular voting is — especially right now, where our only options are mail, fax and email, which are hard to deal with living in a place like Guinea.

"It’s pretty cool that I was one of the first to try it out. I hope it becomes available to all places because, like I said, if I ever join the Peace Corps again, no matter where I live I’d love to feel comfortable knowing that I could vote this way again.”

Amiti finishes her Peace Corps service later this year. What’s next?

“I’m not sure yet, but maybe diving back into the campaign scene — we’ll see.”

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