The NCSL Blog


By Dylan Lynch

It should be no surprise that mail plays an important role in elections, particularly for those living abroad. In 2016 almost 3 million voting-eligible citizens lived overseas, according to the Department of Defense's Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP).

graphic on overseas votersOf those 3 million people, only 6.9% voted in the 2016 election (compared to 72% of the citizen voting-age population domestically). It is estimated an additional 37% of overseas civilians would have voted in 2016 if not for obstacles.

While motivation always plays a role in turnout, for these overseas voters, mail reliability, transport time and government censorship are all factors. The FVAP study also found that 75% of civilian voters across the globe who requested and received their ballots via mail successfully cast their votes. Likewise, 83% of those who returned their ballots via mail were successful in voting.

As for mail reliability, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) plays a key role in the ability of overseas citizens to vote. The UPU sets terminal dues (postal rate fees) for international mail exchange between national postal agencies and is composed of 192 member countries. That number could soon decrease by one.

On Oct. 17, 2018, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the UPU, citing currently favorable postal rates for small packages from foreign countries (notably China) coming to the U.S.

Although nothing is certain yet, a statement from the administration outlines the process: “This will begin a one-year withdrawal process, as set forth in the UPU Constitution. During this period, the Department of State will seek to negotiate bilateral and multilateral agreements that resolve the problems discussed in the Presidential Memorandum. If negotiations are successful, the Administration is prepared to rescind the notice of withdrawal and remain in the UPU.”

That one-year deadline is rapidly approaching. The UPU will hold an Extraordinary Congress on Sept. 24-25 to discuss the terminal dues system. That meeting could determine whether the U.S. will stay in the UPU or not. If the U.S. decides to leave, that will take place in October. It should be stressed that it is a very real possibility that the U.S. negotiations will be successful, and the country will not withdraw from the UPU.

Election administrators are concerned. Many states have elections this November and are required by state law to send ballots to overseas voters 45 days prior to an election—by Sept. 21, three days prior to the Extraordinary Congress. It is possible that after ballots have been sent to overseas voters, the landscape of international mail exchange will change. If regular mail service is interrupted, what solutions will remain for voters to return their ballots?

Possible Remedies:

  1. Bi- or Multilateral Agreements. The U.S. is working to establish bi- or multilateral agreements with other nations in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. These agreements could ensure the continuance of mail exchange for those countries.
  2. Commercial Options. Think UPS or FedEx. These private, commercial options could still provide delivery of ballots to election officials, at an expense to the voter. 
  3. Military Mail. The U.S. Armed Forces should be able to return ballots via the U.S. Military Postal Service (MPS). The MPS operates as an extension of the USPS, provides similar services, and operates in more than 55 countries. It is possible the MPS could work around foreign postal services and provide a route for ballots to return to the U.S.
  4. Diplomatic Mail. U.S. embassies and consulates have access to diplomatic mail service that could provide a workaround if regular mail service is not available. Voters would need to get their ballots to the embassy or consulate to have them included in a diplomatic mail delivery.
  5. Electronic Return of Ballots. Returning voted ballots electronically—via fax, email or web portal—is often an option reserved for military and overseas voters. At least 30 states allow some voters to return their ballots via an electronic method. There are some that have argued against the use of electronically returned ballots citing security vulnerabilities.

The future of the U.S.’s involvement in the UPU is not certain, nor are the full implications of a withdrawal known. Regardless, state and local election officials across the country are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best as November elections approach.

Dylan Lynch is a policy specialist in NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.