On this, there is no doubt: Americans who are serving their country abroad or living overseas retain their right to vote.
Approximately 4.8 million U.S. citizens live overseas, and 2.9 million of them are eligible to vote, according to “U.S. Citizens Abroad and Their Voting Behaviors in 2018,” a report from the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program. That year, 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 the FVAP’s 2018 Report to Congress.
And yet far fewer of these Americans vote than do stateside citizens. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Overseas Citizen Population Analysis Report (and its graphical summary) shows that 4.7% of overseas voters cast ballots in the 2018 midterms (the most recent election to be summarized). A stateside citizen was 13 times more likely to vote than an overseas citizen. While that percentage might seem shockingly low, overseas voting in 2018 was up 30% over 2014—the last comparable election. Data for the 2020 election will be out in the fall.
In 2018, a U.S. citizen living stateside was 13 times more likely to vote than an overseas citizen.
While there is also no doubt that states run elections, Congress twice in modern times 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 protections 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,” known as an FWAB, 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.
So, what’s standing in the way of voting for service members, expats and overseas citizens? In the Overseas Citizen Population Analysis Report, 31% responded with “didn’t want to vote,” and 69% indicated they “couldn’t complete the process.” For the two-thirds of voters who had practical issues with voting, maybe there are state policies that could help?
Helping Overseas Voters
To find out how states can make life easier for overseas Americans, NCSL turned to our friends and colleagues Taylor Lansdale and Casandra Hockenberry, from the Council of State Governments’ Overseas Vote Initiative, and Heather Eudy and David Beirne at FVAP.
The top line: “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,” Beirne, the director of FVAP, said. What can states do? “Customer service is key,” he said. “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!’”
If only it were a question of adopting a positive attitude. Instead, obstacles and solutions vary by voter and by state. The needs of an American high-tech worker living in Singapore are dramatically different from those of a sailor deployed for months aboard a U.S. Navy vessel. In Singapore, access to the internet, printers and postage aren’t likely to be a problem. On a ship, however, email access may be limited, and physical mail may be delivered just once every two weeks. “What makes it more challenging is that UOCAVA voters are highly mobile, and often living in austere or hostile environments,” CSG’s Lansdale said.
The core question is, how to get ballots to and from the voter? Relying on mail has risks. Postal delivery schedules at home have slowed down, and how well the mail works around the globe varies by country. Whether a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders can access a stamp is a question. Short Stories From Overseas Voters, from the Center for Civic Design, tells tales from 17 overseas voters. One research participant from Mexico said, “We just take it in good faith that it (the ballot) will arrive and be counted. Who knows if that’s true or not? We do our part on our end.”
The alternative to mailing ballots is delivering them electronically. The MOVE Act required that states provide voters a way to electronically request and receive their absentee ballots. This can be accomplished by sending PDFs of the ballot and even the envelope as email attachments, or by allowing voters to use online portals to access voting materials. Nevada, Vermont and Wisconsin have “one-stop self-service portals” for voters to get their election materials, including blank ballots. (See page 8 of CSG’s Examining the Sustainability of Balloting Solutions for Military & Overseas Voting.)
In some states, the electronic return of voted ballots is permitted—and raises 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.
For years, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has cautioned against using the internet to transfer voted ballots. If states do want to investigate further, Mitigating Risks for UOCAVA Voting is a good read. The key tension is between “security, security, security” and “innovation matters too,” Hockenberry says.
Online portals in some states also provide an alternative to email transmission of ballots. California provides a Remote Accessible Vote-by-Mail system. With this option, voters need access to a computer, but from there they can receive the ballot electronically, mark it online and print it for return. They cannot be returned electronically.
The needs of UOCAVA voters are well understood, but that doesn’t mean there is a viable marketplace for solutions. The UOCAVA market is simply too small on its own to be attractive to a wide array of technology vendors. (Two exceptions: The companies Democracy Live and Voatz have worked for years to crack the ballot-transmission market and solve the security issues at the same time.) That’s why federal funding was provided to states a decade ago to try various methods. Whether more grants will come again is anybody’s guess.
Regardless of the methods available in states, most military units have a voting assistance officer to help voters navigate the process of requesting, receiving and voting a ballot, under the guidance of the Federal Voting Assistance Program and the Services. And FVAP helps non-military voters navigate these complicated waters as well. Overseas Vote, an initiative of the nonprofit U.S. Vote Foundation, serves a similar function.
What can policymakers do to smooth out voting? CSG and FVAP—like NCSL—do not make recommendations on policy choices, but we can point to what some states are doing.
- Use technology to duplicate ballots, saving time and improving accuracy. What ballots need duplication? Any that can’t be fed through a scanner or tabulator, those damaged in transit and any that are printed on plain printer stock—including all ballots printed and returned from overseas voters. In many jurisdictions, these ballots are hand duplicated by bipartisan teams. In jurisdictions with a significant military presence, ballot duplicating can be done with a ballot marking device. The final product is printed and reviewed for accuracy before being counted.
- Allow UOCAVA voters to vote electronically—while watching like hawks for the security of those ballots and any compromise to voting systems this entails. West Virginia did so in 2020 and California in 2017.
- Consider permitting the use of Department of Defense digital signatures to streamline the process of submitting election materials electronically. Particularly in front-line areas where printers are scarce to non-existent, this could make the difference between voting and not voting. Nevada, Montana and Maryland allow this. Montana did so in 2019; New York did so with AB 779 and SB 2300.
- Create tracking for ballots both to and from the voter. Some states already permit ballot tracking for domestic ballots and it’s even more important for overseas voters. FVAP is testing efforts from its 2016 Military Ballot Tracking Pilot that could be implemented in time for the 2022 election. It allows military voters to track the progress of their ballots through the military mail system; if it’s obvious it won’t be received in time to vote it and return it, the voter can use the FWAB instead. California, Colorado, Texas and Florida were the four original states to participate in the pilot in 2016.
- Consider alternatives to faxed ballots, as access to analog fax machines is dwindling and the security risks of modern faxing are better understood.
- Establish “sandboxes”—restricted internet access areas that do not touch an election office’s network in any way—for the return of election-related materials. This can reduce the risk of data corruption or the spread of a computer virus.
- Dedicate funding for any of these technical things. Some states have used federal HAVA grants.
- Ask your local election officials how they serve UOCAVA voters and what their ideas are to ease the burden on these voters (and possibly on themselves).
- Regardless of whether your state requires absentee ballots to arrive at the election office by Election Day or within a window after that day to be counted, a special exception can be made for UOCAVA ballots, or just for ballots from military voters. This accounts for the vagaries of mail delivery. Rhode Island did this in 2019 with HB 5765 and SB 628.
- Consider using instant runoff voting (also known as ranked choice voting) if your state uses primary runoffs. Instead of sending one ballot for the primary and another one for the primary runoff if one is called for, just one ballot is sent with instructions for the voter to indicate their first, second, etc., choices. If their first-choice candidate doesn’t make it to the general election, their second choice will be counted. Georgia did so this year, and South Carolina did so in 2017.
- Extend the length of time an application—especially the Federal Post Card Application—is good to a full election cycle (two years). In some states, a new request is required every year; in others, the request is permanent. Beirne thinks the sweet spot for the very mobile overseas population is a full cycle. In 2020, Wyoming extended the request to a calendar year, rather than a single election.
- Call on CSG, FVAP or NCSL for testimony, policy impact statements or policy analysis.
Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.