Can American Citizens Vote Overseas?

Written by
Amber Hobert
Published on
July 9, 2024
Table of Contents

Voting From Abroad

A person's right to vote is determined by their citizenship and not by their residence. Many American people live abroad to serve their country. This doesn't mean that they don't have the right to vote. A study shows more than 4.8 million U.S. people live overseas. Approximately 2.9 million of them are eligible to vote.

Due to the absence of a comprehensive list of all U.S. citizens living abroad, it is difficult to obtain accurate data on U.S. citizens overseas. Thus, researchers estimated this group's size and characteristics using various methods, including censuses, surveys, and model estimation. Now, let's look at Americans voting overseas in more detail.

Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP)

To better help U.S. overseas citizens and reach those who want to vote, the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) conducted a study known as the Overseas Citizen Population Analysis. This report includes:

  • Estimates of those who can vote: Statistical modeling and current data can better estimate the size and distribution of the U.S. voting-eligible population by country.
  • Portraits of overseas registered American voters: The first-ever representative survey of registered overseas voters was chartered by FVAP, providing insights into overseas voters' characteristics and experiences.
  • Estimates of who voted: FVAP calculated overseas voter turnout rates by country using eligible voter estimates, ballot requests, and state submission data.

Changes In State-To-State Voting

State governments make most election administration decisions. Election officials carry out these decisions at the county level in the U.S., where election legislation is mainly decentralized. This is also true for overseas voters. The date for accepting votes from abroad varies from state to state.

For instance, foreign ballots in Connecticut must be received on election day, but in Florida, they can be postmarked by election day and received ten days later. The state where a person last lived before leaving America is listed as their' voting residence' when voting from abroad.

This residence is valid even if the person doesn't have a working address. If a person doesn't maintain connections to the state or has no plans to move in again, this residency is still considered legal. For citizens who never lived in America, most U.S. states let these residents cast their ballots in the state where their parents lived.

The UOCAVA Federal Law Of 1986

The 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) is a federal law passed in 1986. This law guarantees that all U.S. citizens, irrespective of their residence, have the right to vote in federal elections away from their polling location. UOVACA applies to military soldiers, their families, and citizens living outside the United States.

UOCAVA developed the Federal Post Card Application to allow service members and citizens of America to register their vote and request an absentee ballot from the state. They can only request an absentee ballot from where they are eligible to vote if voters do not receive an absentee ballot from their state in time.

UOCAVA includes a Federal Write-In absentee balloting as a backup option. When combined, these two tools are intended to ensure that Americans can vote in federal elections even if they serve in the military or live abroad on election day.

The Move Act By Congress

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, passed by Congress in 2009, expanded and strengthened protections for UOCAVA voters. This law amended UOCAVA to require all states to follow additional procedures for voting in federal elections, such as:

  • UOCAVA voters register to vote and receive absentee ballots electronically by mail.
  • Absentee ballots must be sent to UOCAVA voters no later than 45 days before a federal election.
  • Accepting ballots from UOCAVA voters even if they do not meet state notarization or paper or envelope requirements.
  • UOCAVA voters will be able to track the status of their absentee ballots.

The MOVE Act also includes a mechanism that allows states to request a 'hardship waiver' if they cannot meet the law's 45-day deadline. The application must explain why the state is unable to meet the deadline. It should also include a comprehensive plan to ensure that UOCAVA voters in particular states can still have their votes counted.

Each state has its set of rules regarding how UOCAVA voters must return their completed ballots. Some states allow the voters to vote by mail, fax, email, or web portal, while others require ballots to be returned only via the mail.

Low Turnout Rates

Despite the governmental protections, there are very few voters to participate in elections from abroad. Around ten times fewer overseas Americans than U.S. citizens vote in American elections. Only 7.8 percent of American citizens who were entitled to vote but were living overseas participated in the 2016 presidential election.

Much fewer people voted in midterm elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate, with 4.7 percent of eligible voters participating in 2018. Due to residence issues, participation varies. Approximately 17 percent of Americans in Germany and seven percent in France participated in the 2016 presidential election.

While Americans residing in Mexico and South Korea have among the lowest turnout rates, Americans living in the U.K. had the second-highest turnout behind those in Germany. There are many reasons why Americans who live abroad do not cast ballots. Lack of interest or a sense of connection to the elections may not be the only cause.

Because registering to vote occasionally makes an American eligible for state and municipal taxes, some Americans might choose not to participate in elections. Despite efforts to simplify the procedure, registering to vote can still be difficult and time intensive for them.

Every Vote Matters

Even though not many people cast overseas votes, international voters matter in a close election. On election day in Florida in 2000, Democrat Al Gore defeated Republican George W. Bush by 202 votes. However, following a recount, Bush overcame Gore's lead thanks to his advantage in postal ballots.

When these votes from abroad were included, it resulted in a turning point by a razor-thin margin of just 537 votes. It was then discovered that 680 votes cast from abroad were unlawfully counted. Researchers then calculated that, in some reasonable circumstances, these overseas votes would have been sufficient to flip the election from Gore to Bush.

The Florida 2000 scenario highlights the necessity of each vote in a close election. Thus, American citizens abroad significantly impact U.S. election results, even with low attendance.

Security Issues

NIST, also referred to as The National Institute for Standards and Technology, has advised against sending ballots through the internet for years. Some states also offer online portals as a substitute for sending ballots via email. California has a remote-accessible system for voting through the mail.

To use this option, voters must have access to a computer to get the ballot electronically, mark it online, and print it out to return, but it cannot be returned electronically. The demands of UOCAVA voters are acknowledged, but there isn't necessarily a market for answers.

Basically, the UOCAVA business is too exclusive to draw a large range of technology vendors. That's why federal funds were given to states ten years ago so they may experiment with different strategies. Under the Federal Voting Assistance Program and the Services guidelines, most military units have a voting assistance officer to assist voters with obtaining, receiving, and casting a ballot.

Additionally, FVAP aids non-military voters in navigating these challenging waters. Overseas Vote, a program of the non-profit U.S. Vote Foundation, serves similar purposes.

Technical Solutions

Use of technology

With today's technology, one can quickly and accurately duplicate ballots. There is a need to duplicate overseas ballots as votes are produced and returned by overseas voters, and any that cannot be processed through a scanner or tabulator might be damaged during shipping.

Nonpartisan teams in several areas manually copy these ballots. A ballot marking device can be used to duplicate ballots in places with a substantial military presence. Before being tallied, the finished product is printed and checked for accuracy.

Cast votes electronically

There is a need to allow UOCAVA voters to cast their votes electronically. By doing so, voting will be easy and accurate. But there is also a need to monitor the security of the ballots and beware of any compromise to voting systems. West Virginia adopted electronic voting in 2020 and California in 2017.

Department of defense digital signatures

For the purpose of speeding up the electronic submission of election materials, the use of the department of defenses' digital signatures must be considered. This will determine whether a person votes or not, especially in front-line places where printers are rare to not available at all. Maryland, Nevada, and Montana all permit the use of the department of defense digital signatures. Montana adopted it in 2019.

Create tracking for ballots

Another good option is to make a tracking system for votes going to and coming from the voter. Voter tracking is already permitted in many states for domestic ballots as it is crucial to overseas voters. FVAP tested the 2016 Military Ballot Tracking Pilot. It was implemented in time for the preparation for the 2022 election.

This enables military voters to monitor the status of their ballots as they travel through the military postal system. If it becomes clear that the vote won't arrive in time to be used and returned, the voter can choose to utilize the FWAB instead. Florida, California, Colorado, and Texas were the first four states to sign up for the pilot program in 2016.

Use alternatives to faxed ballots

Access to traditional fax machines is limited, and the security hazards of present faxing are well acknowledged. It is time to think about some alternatives to faxed ballots.

Create sandboxes

'Sandboxes' are restricted internet access zones to return election-related materials. These zones must be separate from the network of an election office. By doing this, both the chances of data corruption and transmission of a computer virus can be decreased.

Non-Technical Solutions

Make an exception for UOCAVA ballots

A notable exception can be made for UOCAVA ballots or only votes received from military voters, regardless of if your state requires absentee ballots to arrive at the election office before Election Day or after that day to be counted. This is somehow related to the nature of mail delivery in older days.

Implement instant runoff voting

If your state uses primary absentee voting in elections, they may think about implementing instant runoff voting, also called ranked-choice voting. Only one ballot is supplied with instructions for voters to designate their first, second, and more preferences.

Multiple choice is given rather than sending one ballot for the primary and another for the primary runoff. Their second preference will be taken into consideration if their first pick does not advance to the general election. South Carolina implemented this in 2017.

Extend the duration of applications

States can ensure that applications, especially the Federal Post Card Application, are valid for the duration of a whole election cycle (two years). Some states demand a fresh request yearly, while others require a permanent one. According to Beirne, a full cycle is an ideal time for the highly mobile international population. Wyoming changed the proposal from a single election to a calendar year in 2020.

Facts About U.S. Overseas Voters

States decide the eligibility of overseas votes

Overseas Americans have the option to cast ballots in state and local elections, depending on their voting state. States have the authority to decide whether their residents can register to vote, purchase health insurance, or access clean water. Therefore, if they can, they should avail these options.

Voting won't bring you under the attention of the IRS

You won't come under the IRS radar if you vote. State tax implications occasionally exist for citizens with additional ties to their voting state. The IRS won't even be aware that you're voting from abroad if you're 'non-compliant' with the severe tax regime imposed on overseas people by not submitting an annual tax return.

Absentee ballots are considered

All absentee ballots are counted. Elections are occasionally called before the complete count, but all votes must be considered for an election to be certified.

You must request ballots

In the coming election year, overseas voters must request their ballots if they wish to vote. Even if registered, they need to do so. Once complete, their states automatically send them ballots. Although many states are no longer compelled to send out ballots without a same-year request, state laws can change. An updated ballot request could secure your vote in the event of a recount.

Use Your Voice From Afar

Any American citizen can increase the votes from abroad for the U.S. elections. Depending on your state, you are free to vote from overseas, whether sending it via mail or utilizing a mail forwarding service. You will only need to ensure all your registration and voting requirements are in place as early as possible.

Americans living abroad are particularly conscious of the harm that might result from a terrible administration that targets allies and breaks international agreements. It is a good idea to vote even when overseas to change the path of events. This gives you the chance to use your voice from afar.

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