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How to Vote from Abroad: An Overseas Voting Explainer from U.S. Vote Foundation

U.S. Citizens Maintain Their Right to Vote Wherever They Are Located Around the World

For any American citizen, voting remains your right – and responsibility! – wherever in the world you happen to be. As such, you take your right to vote with you. Spending a semester abroad in Addis Ababa? On vacation in Crete? Moving to Montreal? Stationed with the military in Osaka? You can register and vote from wherever you’re located.

At Overseas Vote, an initiative of U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote), we provide all the information you need to register and vote from beyond our United States borders.

How Many Americans Vote from Abroad?

Roughly 2.9 million eligible American voters live abroad. Yet their voting records are comparatively low next to those living in the 50 states. In 2018, for example, only 4.7% of overseas voters cast ballots in the midterms – that amounts to roughly 136,000 votes. Indeed, a stateside voter is generally 13 times likelier than one stationed abroad to vote.

Nevertheless, in 2020, during the thick of a pandemic, the numbers skyrocketed. Overall, voter turnout was the highest it’s been in 120 years when measured against the voting-eligible population: 66.7%. And for overseas Americans, specifically, the numbers didn’t disappoint.

According to the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency charged with supporting state and local elections, in 2020, states “reported transmitting more than 1.2 million ballots to UOCAVA voters– a population that includes members of the uniformed services absent from their voting residence, their eligible family members, and U.S. citizens living overseas who receive special protections under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) law. Of those transmitted ballots, more than 900,000 were returned by voters and nearly 890,000 were counted in the election.” That’s a jump from 2012, when only 600,048 UOCAVA voters returned ballots that counted, and an increase from 2016, when 633,436 were counted.

Still, we can do better. That’s why US Vote aims to provide the most comprehensive information possible to voters on how to register, get an absentee ballot, and vote in time to have your ballot count – wherever you are in the world.

Do Americans Like Voting Absentee? What’s the Average Experience Like?

After the 2020 election, US Vote conducted a post-election survey and collected 15,495 completed survey responses from voters, most of whom voted absentee, either domestically or from abroad. Overall, nearly all respondents (94%) reported that they voted, and the vast majority of those who did cast a ballot (89%) indicated they were satisfied with their overall voting experience. Reassuringly, 99.5% of domestic and 92% of overseas absentee voter respondents indicated that they received their ballot in time to vote. This timeliness is essential, especially considering that nearly half the total electorate (at home and abroad) voted by absentee ballot in 2020.

On the flip side, while the majority (73%) expressed confidence that their ballots would be counted as intended, a full 27% didn’t have that same trust. Indeed, a majority (85%) of respondents worried about the integrity of elections, a trend that’s consistent across several demographic markers, including political party affiliation. Plus, just a bare majority (51%) expressed satisfaction with the way elections work in the United States.

To be sure, federal national security agencies – including former President Trump’s appointees – have assured the public that 2020 was the most secure election to date. Yet “stop the steal” rhetoric and voter fraud claims persist. At US Vote, we aim to provide elections information that counters mis- and dis-information, providing voters – whatever their political affiliation – with the answers they need to vote. Check out our “Absentee Voting is Voting” campaign to learn more about our work to ensure every American has the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse. 

How to Register and Request an Absentee Ballot from Abroad

We have created a “one-stop shop” for voters living overseas, whether in the military or as civilians.

Follow these simple steps to register and request your ballot:

  1. Go to US Vote's Register to Vote / Ballot Request, or choose it from menu.
  2. Enter your data through the guided wizard process.
  3. Enter your information. Note that you can request your ballot online so that you receive it faster, but be prepared to print and post it back.
  4. Download, print, and sign your form.
  5. Send your signed form to the local election office address provided in the instructions that come with the form. Check your state's Voting Materials Transmission Options to confirm if you can send your signed scanned form by email.

Your completed form must go to your local election official. See the section below on “voting residence address” to understand where your ballot will be counted.

How Absentee Voting Differs for Overseas Voting and Military Voters

The Voter Registration / Ballot Request service offered by US Vote is designed exclusively for U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote under a federal law called the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). This is the law that protects the right to vote by US citizen who are outside of the U.S.

All overseas and military voters have the right to use a special form which is historically called the "Federal Post Card Application (FPCA)". This form is the same across all states and territories and it works as a simultaneous voter registration application and absentee ballot application. That means that as a voter, you only need to file one form to register and request an overseas absentee ballot. It should be submitted for each election year in which you want to vote from abroad.

Rather than the unfamiliar term, FPCA, US Vote calls this form the overseas and military voter Registration / Ballot Request form. 

UOCAVA affords the right to vote in primary, general, special, and runoff elections for federal offices (President and Vice President, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Representative), as well as the non-voting congressional representatives from the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

An overseas voter is a U.S. citizen of voting age who is outside the U.S., either permanently/indefinitely or temporarily and is considered a UOCAVA voter.

An absent uniformed services voter is a member of one of the U.S. uniformed services, on active duty. The uniformed services are the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as well as the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps. Members of the U.S. Merchant Marine also qualify as absent uniformed services voters, as do spouses and voting-age family members of uniformed service members and Merchant Marine members, if they are accompanying the service member.

An absent uniformed services voter must be absent from the electoral jurisdiction (like a county) where he or she is eligible to vote, either within or outside the United States. The voter need not be absent from the State where he or she is eligible to vote - a soldier from Houston serving at Fort Hood (also located in Texas) is an absent uniformed services voter for purposes of UOCAVA, but a soldier serving in Houston (e.g., as a recruiter) who is eligible to vote in Houston would not be an absent uniformed services voter for UOCAVA purposes. (Such a person could be eligible to vote absentee under State law if he or she expects to be absent from Houston on Election Day.)

Determining "Voting Residence Address" Based on "Residence"

Usually, an eligible voter must have lived – “resided” or “domiciled” – in a specific state for a certain period (twenty to thirty days) before registering to vote there. States usually employ the legal concepts of “residence” and “domicile” to prohibit anyone who does not “live” in the state from voting there – and thus impacting its local politics and activities. Thus, an intention to live in a state is required before the right to vote from there will be granted.

For an Overseas Voter:  your voting residence address is not a place where you stayed temporarily, nor is it the home of a relative, or where you might continue to receive post in the US, rather, it is the last home residence that you lived in and moved from, prior to living abroad. You do not need to currently own or visit your voting residence address – it is simply your address for voting purposes. For an election official in the US, even if you are living overseas for decades already, they consider your voting residence address as your US address.

If, for example, you currently live in Berlin, Germany, then your voting address will be the last residence at which you lived in the United States before you relocated overseas. This is true whether you have moved due to military service, as a college student, or for some other reason.

For a Uniformed Services Voter:  Your voting residence, is whatever you consider your permanent home, assuming you have – or most recently had – a physical presence there. For example, if you are now stationed with the military in Arkansas, and consider this your home, then you should vote from there. If you intend to return to Arizona – where you were last domiciled – then you can instead vote absentee from Arizona.

People change plans often and an earlier intention – to live in Idaho, for example – may be supplanted by a new one to live in Texas. What matters is your intent, and physical presence, for the foreseeable future.

Special Considerations for Those Who Were Born Outside the US and Have Never Returned Stateside

If you are an eligible voter and have never lived in the U.S., you should use your U.S. citizen parent's current or last U.S. residence address. 

We recommend that you check that you are registering in one of the states that allow U.S. citizens born overseas (and who have never lived in the U.S.) to vote, as well as to verify the specific rules of that state. You can find this information for each state in US Vote’s Voter Help Desk FAQ, I’m an American citizen born overseas – can I vote?

Note that, in order to qualify, your parent(s) must also be eligible to vote. If both of your parents are U.S. citizens and have different last U.S. residence address/es or current address/es, (or, if military, legal residence), you may choose either address.

When and How Often to Submit a Registration/Absentee Ballot Request

U.S. citizens abroad, and uniformed services members who are absent from their US voting residence, are required to send in a Registration/Ballot Request each year that you want to vote.

One single form designed specifically for overseas and military voters will simultaneously register you to vote and request your absentee ballot. This same form is accepted across all states. If you send the form to your election office online, be sure to follow with a posted copy of the original signed document. Some states will not count your ballot without having received the original, signed request.

The form allows you to request your blank ballot by post or online. If you choose an online ballot, be prepared to print that ballot and send it back by post.

Returning Your Absentee Ballot

Every state will accept your voted ballot by post, and some also by electronic means.

To check if your state accepts electronic ballot submission:

  1. Go to US Vote’s State Voter Information directory and select your state.
  2. Choose "overseas or military voter", and then "Voter Materials Transmission Options," and click Submit.
  3. On the next screen you will see the ways your state accepts ballots and other voter information.

Important note: Even if your state is one of the few that does accept completed ballots over the internet, if you have time for postal delivery, please try to avoid this online option. As national security agencies have advised, transmission of completed ballots by email or over the internet is insecure and thus susceptible to hacking and corruption. Instead, return your completed ballot with enough time through the mail or some other acceptable courier service. See our board member Mark Ritchie’s op-ed on this important topic.

There are two safe ways to return your ballot:

  1. Postal Mail – Mail your ballot as early as possible from the post office and make sure it is postmarked to show the mailing date was on or before Election Day. Be sure that the address includes "USA."
  2. Carriers such as FedEx, DHL, UPS, etc. Note, though, that some states prohibit return by private carriers. Check your state’s regulations or call your election office to confirm your state’s requirements.

Things to note:

  1. Complete and mail your ballot as early as possible. Read the instructions carefully, and sign where necessary. If the ballot return envelope or Oath requires an address with your signature, that is where you will enter your US voting residence address.
  2. Do NOT give your ballot to someone to take back to the US and drop into the local post. This is a sure way to have it rejected. Overseas ballots must have overseas postmarks on their envelopes! 
  3. Do not rely on the U.S. Embassy or Consulate to send your ballot back in a timely manner. They are not a mailing organization. (There may be some assistance through American Citizen Services, however, it varies depending on which country you are in. Use this service only if necessary.)
  4. For Military Voters, take advantage of the free Express Mail available from military post offices. This service is often referred to as "Label 11". 

How to Track Your Ballot

Forty-six states, and the District of Columbia, permit voters to track elections activity: when an absentee ballot request is received, when the ballot is mailed to their home, and when the completed ballot is received by election officials.

Significantly, too, local election officials will often notify a voter, by text, email or call, of a problem with processing the ballot due to, say, a signature omission or mismatch. It all depends on which ballot-tracking system your state uses.

Be on the lookout for any such notification from your election official! If you are in doubt as to whether the text or email is legitimate – given the current flood of election disinformation tactics – then just call or email your local election office to find out. The earlier you do this, the quicker you can resolve any outstanding issues.

Steps if You Requested an Absentee Ballot but Did Not Receive It

Overseas absentee ballots are sent out to voters who have requested them, starting 45 days before the election. Your local election office processes the ballot request and sends you the ballot.

If you are expecting an absentee ballot and it has not yet arrived:

  1. Go to your state's ballot tracking service to check your ballot's status. See the Where's My Ballot / Absentee Ballot Tracking chart for the link.
  2. If you do not see your ballot in the tracking system, and you are sure that you submitted your Voter Registration/Absentee Ballot Request form to your local election official earlier this year, please contact your election office to check on the status of your ballot.
  3. You can find your local election office’s contact information by going to the Election Official Directory, inputting your state and region, and clicking on the “Election Official Contact Details”.
  4. As a last resort, if you are sure that you requested your ballot, and all attempts fail to receive it, you can use the overseas voter emergency ballot, the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB)

Note: If you send in a FWAB, and then receive your regular ballot from your election office, you should still complete the regular ballot and send it in. This is an allowable practice and does not equal voting twice.

If you have not yet requested your absentee ballot and the deadline hasn't passed, please go to Register to Vote / Absentee Ballot to generate the form. Once you have completed your form, please download, print, sign, and send it to the address provided in the instructions that will print with your form. 

Vote – and be proud!

Check out our voter reward badges and post them on social media! We have designed ones for both domestic and overseas voters. Each time you post one online you are demonstrating your civic commitment to voting – and encouraging others to do the same! Remember, every citizen is a voter.

People Registration US Vote

Overseas Vote is redirecting you to our parent site, U.S. Vote Foundation.

U.S. Vote Foundation offers complete voter services to all voter types including voters abroad and uniformed services voters and their families.

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