Following 2020 Presidential General Election, U.S. Vote Foundation conducted its customary voter survey. The results were published in the 2020 Election Day Voter Experience Survey Report. Contained within the report is a section that specifically addresses the foundation’s current Overseas and Military Voting Reform Agenda, highlighted here.
Excerpt from U.S. Vote Foundation 2020 Election Day Voter Experience Survey Report
Overseas and Military Voting Reform Recommendations
The US Vote survey highlights the fact that overseas and military voting is ripe for improvement. Processes involved with overseas voting can be more complex than domestic vote-at-home experiences, therefore it is not surprising that printing ballots and ballot envelopes and other aspect of the process came up for reconsideration.
- Overseas voter respondents to the US Vote Survey indicated a higher rate of dissatisfaction (15%) with their voting experience, almost three times higher than their domestic absentee voter counterparts.
- When overseas voters were asked how to improve their experience, a significant majority (60%) indicated support for internet/email voting, with 18% suggesting that overseas voters be designated as permanent absentee voters, 11% suggesting offering access to FWAB more broadly (4%), and standardized deadlines across all states (3%).
The most commonly proposed solution – internet/email voting is a seriously flawed solution that US Vote formally opposes based on security and privacy concerns. It is important that efforts to buttress confidence in existing processes be joined by efforts to help the general public understand the lack of security surrounding internet voting.
US Vote suggests the following reforms
- Automatic registration for uniformed services members
- 45-day combined voter registration/ballot request/ballot form
- Standardized election dates and deadlines for federal elections
- Inform citizens of their voting rights overseas
- Provide better guidance on how to print ballots and envelopes
Automatic registration for uniformed services members
- Automatic voter registration reform is particularly needed for military voters. Rather than uniformed service members being automatically registered to vote upon enlistment, every uniformed services member must repeatedly register and request a ballot, year after year while serving our country.
- US Vote recommends this process be changed to establish automatic registration for enlisted service members with the clear possibility to opt-out, if desired. All registered uniformed services members should automatically receive their ballots for every election in which they are eligible.
45-day combined process for registration, ballot request and ballot casting
- The complexities of voting abroad are exacerbated by the separation of the processes of registration, ballot request, and ballot submission into what often amounts to three separate interactions with an election official in the US. This complexity is unnecessary, and has the potential effect of disenfranchising a voter should the separate transmission of any these documents fail to take place within the proscribed deadlines.
- It is possible to alleviate this time-consuming process for voters that would like to take advantage of the franchise within a shorter time before the election.
- US Vote recommends that a single combined form, which could function as a combined voter registration/ ballot request/ballot for use across all states should be made available to overseas voters as of 45 days prior to the election, when overseas and military ballots are made available. This would dramatically expedite the overseas and military voting process and administration and bring many new voters into the franchise while eliminating another risk that a voter may not be able to exercise their right to vote.
Standardized deadlines for federal elections
- The processes of registration and requesting a ballot varies across states and have become increasingly complicated to follow. A deadline may be different depending on whether an application or ballot is sent by mail, email, fax or delivered in-person, with no correlation from one state to the next.
- This is the kind of non-uniformity that confuses voters. US Vote recommends one single set of federal voting deadlines for all overseas and military voters across all states.
Inform citizens of their voting rights overseas
- The U.S. State Department should inform US citizens regarding their overseas voting rights upon the issuance of each new or replacement passport. Inclusion of a one-page flyer with each passport summarizing both voting rights and other pertinent overseas citizen information would be a low-cost measure to improve overseas voter participation.
- U.S. Citizens should travel abroad knowing they carry with them their right to vote.
Provide better guidance on how to print ballots and envelopes
- The problems related to printing ballot requests, ballots, and envelopes is one that has been endemic to overseas and military voting for many years and one that can be easily solved without legislation.
- Rather than an insecure, unproven solution – internet voting – that presents more problems than it resolves, US Vote recommends that overseas voters be better informed on options for ballot receipt. It should be crystal clear to overseas and military voters that requesting a ballot to be delivered online versus on paper by post, and returning such a ballot implies that they will print such a ballot. Presently, this requirement is not clear. Voters misunderstand that their choice to receive their ballot online does not imply that they will vote online.
- This printing issue creates tremendous uncertainty for voters. Concern that the ballot will be rejected if the printing is improperly done, or the envelope improperly labeled. When receiving a ballot for printing, overseas and military voters should be informed in the instructions that their ballot cannot be rejected based on the size or weight of the paper or the envelopes used.
- Paper for voters in countries outside of North America is “A4”, which is slightly narrower and longer than a standard 8-1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper. The paper-size problem can be resolved simply, with better communications and instructions about how to open the file in the correct program and shrink it to fit the available paper. Informing voters of how to do this is an important goal for US Vote and other voter services organizations.
- It is highly recommended that US election administrators cease to request that overseas voters print and fold their own envelopes. Rather, they should provide a label/s for printing and instructions to affix the label to an envelope in the standard mailing size of the country where the voters resides.
- It may be that many of the voters struggling to print their online ballots would fare better if they request their ballot on paper by post, as it arrives printed and with a return envelope. To have faith in this process on paper, the US Postal Service will need better funding and support to execute its mission.
Survey Research Supports US Vote's Overseas Voting Reform Agenda
Summary of Survey Results - Overseas Voters / Voting from Abroad
- Overseas absentee voters constituted the largest group of voters in the 2020 Voter Experience study.
- There were 6,986 respondents that identified as overseas absentee voters, which is about 49% of all respondents.
Overseas voters largely requested their ballots through:
- A state or local website (30%)
- The Overseas Vote website (26%)
- A federal website (7.5%)
This group of voters also reports few problems receiving their ballot as 80% had no issues requesting their ballots. The top problems for requesting a ballot were:
- Problems accessing the form (5%)
- Some were unsure which address to list (3%)
- Others had printing problems (3%)
How overseas voters received their ballot:
- 80% via electronic means; comprising email (66%) and website downloaded (14%)
- 15% received the ballot through postal mail
- An overwhelming majority report receiving their ballot in plenty of time (92%). As with domestic absentee, the vast majority of overseas voters report receiving their ballot well before the election with 89% receiving their ballot 3-4 weeks before Election Day.
In contrast to blank ballot receipt, which was largely online, most overseas voters (66%) report returning their ballots on paper:
- via postal mail (49%), express mail (13%), or diplomatic post (4%)
- email ballot return was just 18%
While over half the states allow online ballot return, overseas voters opted strongly for paper methods.
Upon returning their ballot, 55% of overseas voters report checking their ballot status through a state or local website.
Overseas absentee voters indicated support for the following reforms:
- internet/email voting (60%)
- permanent absentee overseas (18%)
- paper ballots only (11%)
- the ability to use FWAB and other options (4%)
- standardized deadlines across all states (3%)
- When encountering a problem, overseas voters listed election officials (15%), friends or family (9%), and the US Vote Help Desk (4%) as the most prominent sources of help.
- Those voting overseas via absentee/vote-by-mail generally reported few problems voting.
- In total, 80% report no issues in requesting their ballot while 81% report no issues in receiving their ballot. However, a stubborn 20% had issues, and that is of concern.
Focus on Printing Problems
While 81% reported no problems receiving their ballot, the main problems in terms of receiving the ballot for overseas voters were largely experienced by voters who received online ballots that required printing:
- printing problems (6%) and
- confusion over the correct paper size (5%) – which could also be considered part of the printing process.
These printing and paper size issues require a few deliberate actions by election officials to resolve:
- Improve ballot request instructions to inform the voters who request online ballots that they will need to print them
- Include in the instructions that the ballot file should be opened in Adobe Reader (not a browser) and when printing, they should select “Print to Fit”
- Inform voters in the instructions that ballots cannot and will not be rejected based on the size or weight of the paper they are printed on or the envelope they are sent in (this is codified in the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act)
- Test the instructions with actual voters and adjust as needed
We need clearer instructions on how to print a return envelope.
— Overseas Vote-By-Mail Voter
Can we get printing instructions for ballots arriving in Europe by email because of different paper sizes between US and Europe?
— Overseas Vote-By-Mail Voter
Addition Reports available on U.S. Vote Foundation website: