Absentee Voting: How to Exercise Your Right to Vote Abroad

With the U.S. midterm elections fast approaching (election day is Tuesday, November 6), U.S. expats may be asking themselves if they can vote when they live abroad

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Becoming an expat does not mean that you lose any of the rights and obligations of being a citizen. And these include your right to vote.

You can always return to the U.S. to vote in person, and many expats do. But these days, it’s also easy to vote “long distance,” from your home abroad.

But how, exactly, do you do that? And which elections can you vote in? Here’s the skinny.

What elections can I vote in, as a U.S. citizen?

Most U.S. citizens who live abroad have the right to vote in Federal elections. Federal elections are those for offices at the national level: that is, for President and for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The upcoming midterms include Federal elections for many Congressional seats.

In addition, most states allow you to vote in your state and local elections, as well.

Your voting rights as a U.S. citizen abroad—from members of the armed services to expat retirees—are set forth in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, passed in 1986. To read about your voting rights as an expat overseas, see: www.justice.gov/crt/uniformed-and-overseas-citizens-absentee-voting-act.

Where must I be registered to vote?

You’ll need to be on the voting rolls of a state. Generally, your voting address will be the last residential address where you lived in the U.S. before moving abroad. If you voted while you lived there, you may still be on the voting rolls.

However, if you didn’t vote in the 2016 election or you’ve been away for a while, you may have been struck from the voting rolls. A number of states have tightened their eligibility requirements in recent years, removing voters who have not voted recently. You may also have been dropped from the rolls if you’ve changed address.

So it’s a good idea—especially as a citizen living abroad—to check your voting registration status every year and re-register if needed. (For instance, make it one of your New Year’s resolutions, and check your status every January.)

If you haven’t registered, or if you need to re-register, you can always do so at several sites online. The government-run Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP, www.fvap.gov/) is one. Another is the Overseas Vote Foundation (www.overseasvotefoundation.org), a nonpartisan group.

The voter registration form is called the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA). You can download it from these sites, print it, fill it out, and follow the instructions for returning your signed registration form to your state.  These instructions can vary by state, so be sure to read the instructions carefully and follow them exactly.

Bottom line: How do I vote from abroad this November?

The key is to register and request your absentee ballot as early as possible. Once you’re registered, you can request your ballot. As with registration, you can request your ballot at the FVAP website. Just select your state from the drop-down menu and follow the instructions. You’ll need to have a printer handy to print off the ballot.

Deadlines for registering to vote, requesting a ballot, and returning your ballot vary by state. If you want to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, note that there’s little time left to prepare.Voter registration deadlines have already passed in some states, and ballot request deadlines are upon us. So get on it.

What if I can’t access my state’s site to register and request my ballot?

I recently received an email from one of the U.S. embassies abroad with which I’m registered. The email cites an FVAP report that some citizens have been unable to access their state’s online voter registration and election systems. The email attributed the problem primarily to states’ blocking web traffic from foreign countries in an effort to increase their systems’ cybersecurity. Beefing up cybersecurity is great…but unfortunately, blocking traffic can also prevent legitimate citizens from voting.

If this happens to you, immediately contact your state’s election office to ask for help. FVAP has an online list of state election offices and their contact info. See: www.fvap.gov/search-offices.

What if I don’t receive my ballot in time to vote?

Don’t despair. There is a back-up system for voting if your ballot does not arrive in time or if you can’t access your state’s site to request it. The back-up system is called the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, and it’s valid in all states. Again, you can access the form on the FVAP website. (See: www.fvap.gov/eo/overview/materials/forms.) You’ll need to follow your state’s instructions for filling it out.

If you complete and send in the write-in ballot and then receive your state’s official ballot, you should still fill out the state ballot and send it in. States only count the write-in ballot if they don’t receive the state ballot by the deadline.

How do I make sure my ballot has been received?

Finally, all this effort is for nothing if your ballot is not received and counted. And, as we’ve learned in elections over the last few decades, every vote matters.

So after you’ve sent in your ballot, contact your local state election office to make sure it has arrived safely and on time.

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