Voting for All Americans: Uniformed and Overseas Citizens

8/27/2021

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Overview

Voting in person—whether on Election Day or before—remains the most popular way to vote, and the vast majority of Americans have the option to vote at a polling place, even if they choose a different voting method.

In-person voting, however, is not available to Americans who live outside the United States. Citizens living and working overseas, including military members, cannot show up at a neighborhood polling place and therefore must use absentee voting to exercise their right to vote.

Twice in modern times Congress has stepped in with federal legislation to make it easier for overseas citizens to vote. In 1986, Congress enacted the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), and in 2009 the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) amended federal law and added even more protection for these voters.

Between the two laws, overseas citizens, known as UOCAVA voters, can use a universally accepted federal form to register to vote and request an absentee ballot (the Federal Post Card Application) and can use a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot as a fail-safe voting method if they don’t receive a regular ballot on time. State laws can and do go above and beyond.

Before the MOVE Act, according to a report from the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), half of the states sent out ballots to UOCAVA voters so close to Election Day that the voters did not have sufficient time to cast their ballots. The MOVE Act created a 45-day voting period to address this issue. Yet it still isn’t always easy for UOCAVA voters to vote, and states can help alleviate some of the challenges.

The following sections outline:

  • Population and Turnout
  • Potential Challenges to Voting
  • State Policies on Voting and Their Potential Impact
  • Recent Legislation Specifically Addressing Voting
  • Resources and Acknowledgments

Population and Turnout

According to a 2018 report from FVAP, U.S Citizens Abroad and Their Voting Behaviors, approximately 4.8 million Americans live or work overseas.

Of that population, roughly 2.9 million are eligible to vote and are thus considered UOCAVA voters. Additionally, about three-quarters of the 1.3 million active duty military service members and 600,000 related family members were eligible to vote absentee with special protections because they were stationed away from their voting residence, according to a 2018 Report to Congress.

Despite such a sizeable population, far fewer of these Americans vote than stateside citizens. The Overseas Citizen Population Analysis Report (and its graphical summary) show that 4.7% of overseas voters cast ballots in the 2018 midterms, the most recent election with available data. In contrast, voters in the U.S. are over 13 times more likely to vote than those living abroad (~5% vs ~65%). Although turnout for UOCAVA voters is lower than for stateside citizens, UOCAVA turnout does fluctuate: Overseas voting in 2018 was up 30% over 2014—the last comparable election.

Potential Challenges to Voting

The umbrella term, UOCAVA voter, encapsulates people in many different situations. The needs of a voter in a country with little infrastructure are different than the needs of a voter with convenient access to a post office. Additionally, individual voters may feel less connected to their home jurisdiction the longer they live abroad, and thus their motivation to vote may not be the same as for stateside voters. Some of the hurdles for assisting UOCAVA voters are “fixable” with targeted policies, while disconnection to a stateside election is difficult to address with policy.

“We can’t lose sight that our military and overseas voters are busy with their lives and the process needs to be as seamless as possible…Customer service is key. Whether it is our military serving away from home or Americans residing overseas, this separation creates a vacuum of information. We always encourage election officials to offer positive reinforcement and communication back to the voter: 'Yes, we received your application! Yes, we received your ballot! Yes, your ballot was counted!'” - David Beirne, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program
  • Timing. Because UOCAVA voters live all across the globe, they are more likely to miss deadlines due to the time it takes for mail to transit both to and from the states. In fact, 26% of UOCAVA voters cited the late arrival of their absentee ballots as the reason for not completing the process. Mail delivery schedules vary by country, so relying on a mailed ballot to arrive in time may be risky.
  • Physical Location and Infrastructure. Not all UOCAVA voters are in a place with easy access to a post office or even the internet. Voters in less developed locations face physical and logistical obstacles, and are therefore less likely to receive, fill out and successfully submit their ballots.
  • Complexity. UOCAVA voters face unique challenges, particularly because voting overseas often requires more planning and effort than voting stateside. For voters who receive their ballots electronically (an option in all states—and some states allow electronic return, too), technological savvy is required, as well. According to FVAP, 37% of UOCAVA voters who received their ballots did not complete the process because it was too complicated. In general, FVAP found younger voters were more likely to have trouble completing their ballot, compared to voters aged 35-64.
  • Interest in the Election. Many eligible UOCAVA voters have lived overseas for years, and approximately 47% of UOCAVA registered voters have lived abroad for more than 12 years. Living overseas generally, especially for an extended period, may make a UOCAVA voter feel disconnected from an election outcome and therefore less likely to vote. In fact, 31% of UOCAVA voters report a disinterest in voting.

State Policies on Voting and Their Potential Impact

UOCAVA voters face inherent challenges unique to their circumstances. As a result, election laws for stateside voting can have unintended effects on UOCAVA voters.

Below are a few examples of the ways UOCAVA voters can be affected by policy choices and potential ways to mitigate those effects:

  • Short Timelines to Return Ballots. Many states require absentee ballots be returned the day before or by Election Day. With strict deadlines between receiving and returning an absentee ballot, UOCAVA voters are more likely to miss deadlines since the mailing process in each country is less predictable. To address this issue, some states have created exceptions for UOCAVA voters, allowing more time to return the ballot.
  • Short Timelines Between a Primary and Runoff Election. Due to the international mail delays, if a primary and runoff election are particularly close together, there may not be enough time for a UOCAVA voter to vote separately in each election. To address this issue, some states that hold runoff elections have implemented ranked choice voting for UOCAVA voters, allowing them to rank the candidates in order. Therefore, if a runoff occurs, UOCAVA voters will not need to cast a second ballot; instead, their rankings will show where their votes should go in the runoff.
  • Electronic Ballot Return. Electronic ballot return methods offer an alternative to relying on the postal service, but those aren’t available in all states and come with security concerns. Thirty-one states allow voters some electronic method for returning their voted ballots, either by email delivery, fax or through a web portal. All rely on internet transmission in one way or another. Increasing the number of ways a ballot can be returned, whether by email, fax, web-based portal or even mobile voting blockchain technology (see the West Virginia Mobile Voting example) may increase UOCAVA turnout, though policymakers will also want to think about balancing access and security. Mitigating Risks for UOCAVA Voting is a good read.
  • Ballot Curing and Tracking. UOCAVA voters rely on absentee ballots to cast a vote. In many states, if an absentee ballot has an issue, domestic voters can “cure” their ballot. This option, however, is nearly impossible for UOCAVA voters. More broadly, UOCAVA voters have no way of confirming whether their ballot is sent, received or counted. States may mitigate these challenges by implementing ballot tracking systems that work for UOCAVA voters, as FVAP suggests.  
  • Access to Information. UOCAVA voters are less likely to live in areas with reliable internet and access to technology, which makes finding information about how to request an absentee ballot, elections and candidates difficult. FVAP recommends search engine optimizing web results to minimize the amount of time UOCAVA voters spend tracking down the resources they need to request a ballot and locate other information.
  • Watermark Requirements. Some states require paper ballots to display unique watermarks to prevent counterfeit ballots from being processed and counted. This poses a challenge for UOCAVA voters, who regularly print out their ballots on standard printer paper. States can allow exceptions for UOCAVA voters to use paper without a watermark for their absentee ballots. For instance, Tennessee enacted SB 1315 in 2021 to do this.
  • Specialized Employees. UOCAVA face unique challenges to voting and many election resources do not cater to this group. To provide UOCAVA voters with specialized support, military Installation Voting Assistance Officers (IVAOs) work to assist UOCAVA citizens with the voting process. IOVAs not only aid in the voting process, but the Air Force found IOVAs helped citizens maintain enthusiasm towards the voting program, which could also increase interest in U.S. elections overall.

Recent Legislation Specifically Addressing Voting for UOCAVA Voters

The table below provides a list of enactments from the previous four years, though it does not include bills that extend UOCAVA accommodations to non-UOCAVA (often disabled) voters. Additionally, some bills on postmark and receipt deadlines, such as VA SB 455, are not specific to UOCAVA voters and therefore not included in the list below, even as they may affect UOCAVA voters. Much of the legislation directly affecting UOCAVA voters involves the electronic return of ballots or creates exceptions to certain deadlines for UOCAVA voters.

Table 1. Recent Legislation

State

Bill

Year Enacted

Summary

California

AB 1403

2017

Allows UOCAVA voters who are forced to move for military duty to register to vote after the normal date of registration closing.

California

AB 1013

2018

Allows UOCAVA voters to vote using a certified remote accessible vote-by- mail system.

Colorado

HB 1156

2020

Specifies the affirmation an overseas voter must sign for ballot to be valid.

Georgia

SB 202

2021

Among other things, creates a special runoff ballot for UOCAVA and authorizes instant runoff voting for UOCAVA voters.

Hawaii

SB 107

2019

Prevents overseas ballots from being invalid if the voter was eligible to vote at the time of the election.

Maryland

HB 174

2019

Requires last four digits of a social security number, rather than an entire social security number, to request a ballot for UOCAVA voters (and voters with disabilities).

Montana

SB 124

2019

Requires digital signature for UOCAVA voters.

Montana

HB 176

2021

Closes voter registration at noon the day prior to the election but provides an exception for overseas voters (who remain able to register through Election Day).

New York

AB 779

2019

Requires military absentee ballots be sent out earlier: 46 days before an election, rather than 32.

New York

SB 2300

2019

Specifies military voters’ ballots come with three envelopes: The one addressed to the voter, the one with the ballot sealed inside and a third that sends the sealed ballot to the board of elections.

Oregon

SB 224

2019

Allows UOCAVA voters to request ballot electronically.

Rhode Island

SB 628/ HB 5765

2019

Extends deadline for the receipt of  UOCAVA ballots.

South Carolina

HB 3150

2017

Provides UOCAVA voters with ranked choice ballots.

West Virginia

SB 94

2020

Allows UOCAVA voters to vote electronically.

Wyoming

SB 20

2020

Allows UOCAVA voters to request ballots for a calendar year’s worth of elections rather than a single election cycle.

 

Resources and Acknowledgments

NCSL Resources

Department of Justice

Federal Voting Assistance Program

Special thanks to Wes Zielke and Diana Jordan, the NCSL election team's 2021 summer interns, for their work on this project. NCSL also thanks Taylor Lansdale and Casandra Hockenberry at The Council of State Governments’ (CSG) Overseas Vote Initiative, and Heather Eudy and David Beirne at FVAP.