When I was ‘barred’ from my first Spanish election

Today, May 24th 2015 are the Spanish municipal elections and my first time to vote in Spain. Or so I thought…

As residents of Ronda since November 2012, my husband and I brought our valid Spanish ID cards and headed for the local election hall this morning, eager to cast our vote. Typical for a small town like Ronda, we met friends and neighbours throughout, participating as controllers, party representatives or doing their civil duty, verifying voters. We were sent to a specific table based on the street we live and my Spanish husband voted without further ado. When my turn came, they could not find my name on the list. They checked both the foreign list and then the citizen lists, in case my name by error had snuck itself onto it. They checked by my first name and then by my last, but nothing came up. They asked me to check at the next table, in case, and then the next. In the end I had checked the lists at all the tables to no avail. A voting official went onto the online list and confirmed that my name was not there. Regrettably, she, like the all said, very friendly and courteous, they were not able to help. As far as this election was concerned, I did not exist.

I was starting to be rather ticked off at this point. People in many countries still fight for their chance to vote in a free and fair election. Women have risked life and limb in the past to assure our vote. I should be on the list and I wanted to vote! In fact, to assure I could vote, I had been to the town hall with a friend and politician who works there a couple of months back to assure that my name was indeed registered. Again, three weeks ago, when my husband and I officially changed our address and had to register the change at the town hall, I specifically asked the clerk who dealt with us after the paperwork was done if I needed to do anything else to participate in the upcoming municipal election. She said no, this was it. I was registered.

We decided to walk up to the town hall to see if there was an error that could be rectified, or alternately, to launch a complaint. A political representative and fellow community gardener was there and lead us to a clerk who verified my information. He could see that I had been registered in Ronda (empadronada) since the end of 2012 and that our address was changed on May 5. of this year. He said that there had to be a treaty with Norway for me to vote and another clerk looked into this matter and confirmed that indeed there was a reciprocal treaty between Spain and Norway and that I could therefore vote, though only in municipal elections. At least this matter was cleared. I was allowed to vote and I was officially registered in the town, but this was apparently not enough. Had I registered my intention to vote, the first clerk asked? I said that I had stated my intension to vote verbally, twice, in this very office, and not a single employee of the town hall of Ronda had on these occasions advised me of this last step. In fact, I had been wrongfully informed by one of their employees that I was registered and good to vote. Nothing could be done at this point, I was told. My consolation was that if I came back to the office on Monday during office hours to state my intension to vote, I would be able to vote in the next municipal election, in four years time…

Leaving the town hall, I wondered how many other foreign residents of Ronda this would have happened to today. How many of the approximately 1750 foreign residents in Ronda had been properly informed of their right to vote? And further more, how many of these had been properly informed of their need to state their intention to vote in writing or through some kind of form, which apparently is available at the town hall? There were certainly not sent out any letters to this effect, neither was there posters at the town hall informing foreign residents, nor information for foreign resident voters on the town hall web site. In fact, I doubt that the town hall of Ronda has cared to inform themselves about the foreign residents who has chosen to stay here. Who are they? Where did they come from and why did they settle exactly here? The ruling party has lately spent considerable amount of money on campaign posters, ads, friendship ribbons for the mayor-esse, billboards, and the typical Latin-style megaphone-on-the-roof car announcement. Yet, nobody thought about informing the foreign residents about how to participate in the municipal elections. Are ‘just a few foreigners’ not worthy of their time or are they afraid we will launch our own party?

My husband and I are grateful that the foreign residents of Ronda represent only about 5% of the local population, as we would not have wanted to live in a place where the majority were foreigners. But regardless of numbers, the foreign residents have rights. We have chosen to live in this town. We invest our life savings, earnings and pensions here, which more often than not are higher than the Spanish counterparts. We also pay taxes to the town and should therefore be accepted as residents of equal rights. However, in the town hall of Ronda you will be hard pressed to find a single person who can communicate in English. To me, this is not only unfortunate for Ronda, but also unacceptable for a town which biggest trade is tourism and whose desire is to be seen as a global travel destination.

I consider myself a rondeña by adoption and choice. I love our new hometown as much as any native. In the couple of years we have lived here I have probably volunteered more for Ronda than most citizens who have spent their entire life here. Yet, to some I will always be considered a Guiri, a derogatory term for foreigners. If I can do anything about it, I hope that before the next election is up, Ronda’s foreign residents will not only accepted as part of the community, but also embraced as a valuable potential resource, as well as a multicultural and multilingual asset to the town of Ronda.

And, should you happen to be a foreign resident living in Spain, make sure you register your intention to vote at your local town hall in good time before the next municipal election, round about May 2019.

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