Voting Overseas: Three Simple Steps for U.S. Citizens

While the choice to move overseas can be freeing in many ways, it is not an abdication of your right to select the elected officials who represent the United States to the world. The ability to vote for leaders who reflect our values is a right that each U.S. citizen can exercise no matter where we live.

If you are a U.S. citizen who lives outside the United States, you have the right to vote in all federal elections for president and members of Congress no matter how long you have lived abroad, whether you maintain a residence in the U.S., or whether you ever intend to return to the U.S.

If you are unable to vote in person at your regular polling place on election day, the absentee voting process applies. Follow these steps to vote by absentee ballot from anywhere in the world.

Step One: Register to Vote

First, you must be registered to vote and request an absentee ballot. If you are not registered to vote, you can use the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) as both your application to register to vote as well as your request for an absentee ballot. The FPCA is a standardized form available on the Federal Voting Assistance Program website (FVAP.gov) or from your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you are already registered to vote, you still must complete the FPCA to request your absentee ballot. To request an absentee ballot you need to have a voting residence so that the local election office in your state can send a ballot including the offices and candidates for whom you are eligible to vote.

Voting residence is different than physical residence. Your voting residence is the address in the state in which you lived immediately prior to leaving the United States.

Your voting residence remains valid even if 1) you no longer own property or have other ties to that state (for example, you no longer have a state drivers’ license), and 2) your intent to return to that state is uncertain.

Further, in many states voting residence does not impact your place of residence for tax purposes. In other words, you may not have to file a tax return with your state of voting residence to vote in Federal elections. My wife and I have lived in Mexico for more than two years. We file our Virginia tax return as non-resident and properly report only the rental income from the house we own there yet our voting residence remains Virginia because that is where we lived prior to moving abroad. Check with the local election office in your state to find out if your tax status impacts your voting residence.

See FVAP.gov for instructions on how to complete and submit the FPCA. This website also has information specific to each state, such as whether you can submit your FPCA by email or whether you must print, sign, and mail it, and whether you can choose to receive election materials by email.

If you have previously filed an FPCA with your state election office, it is a good idea to check to make sure it remains valid. In Virginia, a request made in one year is effective until the end of the following year. However, other states may require a new FPCA every year.

If you have never lived in the U.S. but were born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent, you may be entitled to vote in the state in which your U.S. parent last lived. Check with election officials in that state to determine whether you can register to vote.

Step Two: Submit Your Absentee Ballot

The second step you must take to vote by absentee ballot is to fill out and send in your ballot after you have received it. Read the instructions included with your voting package carefully before completing your ballot to ensure that your vote counts in your state. Some states may require your ballot to be sealed and witnessed while others may need a copy of a photo ID such as a U.S. passport to be mailed with the absentee ballot.

In Virginia, absentee ballots must be mailed and received by the election office by 7p.m. on election night to be counted. It’s important that materials be mailed early enough to account for mail delivery time. Other states may allow absentee ballots to be submitted by email.

The next federal general election is Tuesday, November 3, 2020, but state primaries occur sooner. If you have requested an absentee ballot and do not receive it at least 30 days prior to the election, you can use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) to cast your vote. This back-up ballot is available on FVAP.gov along with instructions for completing and submitting the ballot to your local election office.

Step Three: Eliminate Surprises

Request your absentee ballot as early as possible.

It’s best to register to vote and request your absentee ballot as early as possible to ensure that no surprises interfere with your ballot casting. Your state may require you to be registered a certain number of days before election day and processing times for absentee ballot requests vary.

You may also be eligible to vote by absentee ballot in elections for state and local offices depending on your state’s requirements regarding certain factors, including intent to return to the state, whether you continue to maintain a home in the state, and your liability for state taxes. Check with your state for details.

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