The pandemic is occupying our media and minds to such an extent that it is easy to put aside the November elections in the United States. Getting out the vote of overseas citizens, however, has never been more important.
Contrary to myth, all US citizens have a right to vote from abroad in federal elections, no matter how long they have been outside the country, whether they intend to return or even, in most cases, if they have never resided there. But, as with other ‘outsider’ groups over the 243-year history of the United States, the voting rights of citizens outside the country have not been automatically granted, but have been fought for, step by step, over decades. An important initial landmark was the passage of The Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975, later modified in 1978 to clarify that voting in federal elections would not by itself lead to state or federal tax consequences. This was followed by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, which laid the legal basis for a vast expansion of access to voting by Americans living abroad. Further barriers to overseas voting have been removed with the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2001 and the MOVE Act of 2005.
Using your voice from afar
Everyone, whether a US citizen or not, can play a part in boosting the overseas vote for the US elections in 2020. The outcome will affect every person on the planet. No matter our political persuasion, none of us need reminding of the current president’s incompetence and dishonesty, on almost daily display throughout this crisis. Living outside of the US makes overseas citizens especially aware of the damage caused by an administration that attacks our allies, praises dictators and backs out of international agreements. We need to vote in overwhelming numbers to change course, and to overcome the impact of myriad forms of voter suppression championed by this administration, including restricting vote-by-mail in the middle of a pandemic.
There are thousands of candidates, many new to politics, who are running for Congress and for state and local offices, and who are energised to re-affirm democratic values and restore America’s reputation in the world.
As Co-Chair for Voter Registration at Democrats Abroad UK, I have been working with a growing group of trained voter registration volunteers for the past four election cycles. This work has given me insight into not just the power of the overseas vote, but the potential power.
Some 5 to 9 million US citizens are thought to reside outside the country. The range is wide as it depends on the source, but even at the lower end, that is a lot of potential voters. The US Embassy estimates up to half a million US citizens are in the UK alone. These include university students (the UK is the most popular study abroad destination for Americans), military service members and their families, workers both temporary and permanent, ‘accidental’ Americans born in the US to British parents, and international school families, faculty and staff.
In 2018, about 330,000 US citizens cast ballots from outside the US—and that was a record turnout for a midterm election year. Even at this level, we know overseas votes swung at least three US House elections from red to blue, in California, Utah and New Jersey, and gave Democrats Florida’s only state-wide win. It’s easy to imagine what we could do in 2020 if we all turned out to vote.
But barriers to our turnout remain, including a lack of understanding about what our right to vote means.
Five more facts about US voters who reside outside the country
1. Depending on their voting state, many overseas citizens can vote in ‘down ballot’ races—state and local elections.
If they can, they should, because states decide whether their citizens can vote, afford health care or drink clean water. As we see today, state leaders play a huge role in deciding how to protect their citizens from Covid-19 – or not.
2. Voting will not bring you to the attention of the IRS.
There can sometimes be state tax implications for citizens with other ties to their voting state. However, for those who may be ‘noncompliant’ with the onerous tax regime imposed on overseas citizens by not filing an annual tax return, the IRS will not know, let alone track you down, if you vote from abroad.
3. Absentee ballots are always counted.
Elections are sometimes called before the final count, but all ballots must be counted for an election to be certified.
4. Overseas votes matter even in reliably ‘blue’ states.
Depending on your state and whether you intend to return, you may be able to vote in ‘down ballot’ races that are more competitive and extremely important, including for governor, mayor, secretary of state and state judges. In addition, a large number of overseas ballots will be noticed by your representatives and may make them more responsive to our community’s needs, including fair tax treatment and the right to return our ballots electronically. Finally, an even greater disparity between the popular vote and the electoral college results will help build momentum behind the case for electoral college reform.
5. Overseas voters should request their ballots every calendar year they want to vote.
This is the case even if they are registered and even if their states send them ballots without a request. States are no longer required to send out ballots without a same-year request; state laws can change, and an up-to-date ballot request could protect your vote in the event of a recount.
So—how can we all help?
First, reach out to your US citizen friends and acquaintances with a simple question: have you requested your absentee ballot this year? And, if the answer is no, a simple response: go to votefromabroad.org today. In a few minutes, they can generate the one-page federal form that is both a registration and a ballot request and get details for returning it to their state. They will then receive ballots for all elections in the calendar year.
Share the facts in this article and send US citizen friends to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Peer-to-peer outreach is one of the most effective tools to encourage any behaviour, including voting.
Under normal circumstances, our team would be out doing nonpartisan in-person voter registration drives – we ran over 50 at schools, universities, clubs and companies between January and lockdown, and we hope we’ll be able to start again over the summer – but there is plenty to do right now. We need to spread the word far and wide among US citizens that they can and should vote.
If you would like to do more, we at DAUK have at-home ideas for you, from promoting VotefromAbroad.org through your social media and electronic communications to calling or writing to DAUK members to remind them to request their ballots. For more details, email email@example.com. We would love to hear from you!
You can stay up to date on Vote from Abroad’s activities by following them on Instagram @votefromabroad or @students.votefromabroad, on Twitter at @voteabroaduk and on Facebook @VotefromAbroad.
A native New Yorker, Laura Mosedale lives in London and votes in Connecticut. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s.