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Should I, or Shouldn't I, Vote from Overseas?

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The Ethicist column[i] in The New York Times, along with the discussions it sparked regarding the voting rights of Americans living abroad, has prompted me to share my perspective gained from two decades of involvement with this issue. The October 11, 2023 Ethicist article posed a crucial question: Should an American citizen residing in Sweden, holding dual citizenship, and paying taxes in both countries continue to vote in the U.S., even if they have no immediate plans to return?

As part of his response, the Ethicist says, “OK, so you dont have to vote. But would it be a good thing for us if you did? Would it do you any good? Not that I can see.” 

What the Ethicist fails to note is that overseas votes can make a significant difference, especially when it comes to elections determined by razor-thin margins, which we continue to see across the nation. The ability of U.S. citizens abroad to influence U.S. policy should not be underestimated, particularly since American politics and policy have a global impact. Even in countries like Sweden, considered one of the world's most liberal democracies, American influence is palpable, as seen in their inclusion in NATO with U.S. support.

Not all expatriates from other countries have the privilege to vote[ii], either temporarily or indefinitely, and even in the United States, the right for citizens to vote from abroad wasn’t always a given. It was only through the persistent efforts of overseas American organizations like American Citizens Abroad, the FAWCO, and the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, that the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986 was established. UOCAVA was further modernized with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) in 2009.

Thanks to the passage of this legislation, whether our overseas status is permanent or temporary, our voting rights as American citizens remain intact. It's a right that travels with us. It is essential to clarify that, though the current overseas voter registration and ballot request form asks about one's intent to return to the U.S., the answer to this question does not impact an eligible overseas citizen’s right to vote, protected under UOCAVA.

The process of registering and requesting overseas absentee ballots has become increasingly streamlined with most tasks now conducted online. Yet, despite reforms that have made the overseas voting process easier, the participation of American citizens living abroad remains remarkably low. Recent data suggests that less than 8% of the estimated 3 million[iii] eligible voters residing overseas exercise their right to vote. This low participation may be attributed to cultural factors, lack of familiarity with the overseas voting process, the misconception that overseas Americans must maintain a U.S. address in order to vote, or concerns about additional taxation. Often, it's a combination of these factors, coupled with a tendency to take our rights for granted.

As a dual American – Polish citizen, I’m proud to state that since 2004, I've been dedicated to improving the United States’ overseas voting process, developing civic technology, and providing accurate, tailored information to overseas and military voters, because I believe that voting from overseas is an exercise of our citizenship and our responsibilities to our country.

For all overseas American citizens, tomorrow's news may dictate a return home. While we can't predict the future, one thing we can be certain of is that preserving our American citizenship may be the key to boarding that plane. I vote in favor of maintaining all of our voting rights and responsibilities as citizens, even from afar.

Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat
President and CEO
U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote | 

[i] I’m an American Living Abroad Permanently. Should I Vote in U.S. Elections?, By Kwame Anthony Appiah, Oct 11, 2023 

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