How Can Americans Abroad Register and Vote in the Upcoming Elections?

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It is difficult to get an accurate sense of how many American citizens are living abroad at any time; however, rough estimates by the U.S. State Department estimates suggest that the number is in the range of 9 million citizens. Putting this number in context, that makes the imaginary State of Americans Living Abroad the 11th most populated state in the country, slotted between Michigan and New Jersey.

For citizens living outside of the U.S., elections are a potentially stressful time. They want to participate fully in the workings of the greatest democracy in history but are sometimes unclear on the logistics of how to register and vote in an election when they live are far from the physical locations of campaigns, debates, and polling stations.

Here is a quick guide to what Americans living abroad need to know about voting in the upcoming election.

Voting Eligibility

Most U.S. citizens 18 years or older who reside outside of the country are eligible to cast an absentee vote for federal office candidates in both the U.S. primary and general elections. Some states allow for absentee voting, as well, for state and local offices. For specifics about your home state visit the Voting Assistance Guide and click under the tab for How to Vote Absentee.

The Basics of Absentee Voting

The basics of absentee voting are a relatively simple two-step process:

Step One: Submit a completed Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to your local election officials. Please note that U.S. citizens abroad are required to submit a new FPCA each year to be registered to vote in U.S. elections. The FPCA form is available online or at your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as well as from many local U.S. citizens groups located around the globe (see Overseas Vote, for example).

You are free to mail, email, or fax your completed FPCA, but it must arrive at least 45 days before an official election date to be registered in time to vote. You also have to submit a new FPCA every time you move, or whenever you change your address, email, or name. A good idea is to make a note in your calendar to complete and submit one as part of a New Year routine.

Once your local election officials receive your completed Application, they will confirm your eligibility to vote and put your name on the list of voters eligible to receive absentee ballots for any elections held in the calendar year. Most states do have websites that you can use to verify your registration. If you still have concerns that your paperwork has not been processed correctly or in time, it is always an option to call or email your local election officials directly.

They will also send you a blank absentee ballot, either electronically or in paper form. Depending on your home state, you might receive absentee ballots for all elections or a shortened ballot designated for federal elections only.

Step Two: You then fill out the ballot as you would in a polling station on U.S. soil and return the completed ballot before your state’s ballot return deadline. You can:

  • mail your ballot, remembering to attach sufficient international postage
  • drop it off at an embassy or consulate for return via a U.S. Embassy Diplomatic Pouch, addressed to your local election officials and with sufficient U.S. postage or in a postage-paid envelope
  • some states permit your ballot to be submitted electronically by email or fax, but you will want to check the Voting Assistance Guide mentioned earlier to make sure your home state will count an electronic submission
  • use an express courier service at your own expense but be sure to clarify if the service will deliver to a P.O. box, which not all do.

If the situation arises that you do not receive a blank ballot at least 30 days before an election, you can still vote using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. Be sure to contact the voting assistance offered at the nearest embassy or consulate for assistance if you need it. It is important to note that your FWAB will be counted only if your regular absentee ballot does not reach your state officials by the deadline. You will not be casting two ballots or invalidating your vote if this backup procedure becomes necessary.

Voting and Taxes

While voting for federal offices does not impact your federal or state tax liability, casting a vote for your sate or local offices might affect your state tax liability. If you have questions or concerns about the tax implications of your absentee vote, it is best to seek professional advice.

Your Vote Counts

A recent Statista poll produced a long list of issues that Americans think are important to the future of the country. This list indicates a growing dissatisfaction with government (21 percent) and ongoing concerns with the coronavirus (20 percent) and race relations (19 percent) as well as problems with the economy in general (8 percent), unemployment (5 percent), healthcare and crime (3 percent each). Of course, there are many more issues on this list, and every person has something worth voting for in November.

The 2016 general election saw a voter turnout rate of around 56 percent even though 70 percent of Americans say that high turnout rates are crucial to making democracy function to its fullest. Voter participation in the U.S. is notably lower than other developed, democratic countries in the world. And turnout rates vary dramatically among different racial, ethnic, and age groups. So regardless of who you are or where you are in the world, this year remember Susan B. Anthony’s simple but very profound statement: “Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.”

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