One of the many things to figure out in your new life overseas is how to vote back in the United States. About 3 million overseas residents are eligible to vote in American elections, but surprisingly few know exactly how to do it.
Granted, some people prefer to leave American politics behind when they move abroad, including participation in U.S. elections. But to others, exercising their right to vote remains very important.
Let’s look at the process, step by step.
3 Things To Know
Here are a few general principles for overseas American voters to keep in mind.
1. You’ve got the right to vote
All American citizens over 18 have the right to vote, even if they don’t live in the United States. In some cases, depending on state rules, even those Americans who have never lived in the United States have the right to vote.
2. It’s a state process
Even though the federal government makes some of the rules, voting in the United States is under the purview of the states… not the federal government. So just like when you’re voting from within the States, voting from abroad must be done in accordance with state rules.
Which state is “yours”? We’ll get to that in a minute…
Consulates abroad can play a role in the election process, but consulates are not polling places. You can’t go there on election day to vote or go there in advance to pick up a ballot.
3. Electronic ballot requests
Due to the unreliability of some international postal systems, federal law now requires that states provide voters a way to electronically request and receive their blank absentee ballots. This is accomplished by using email attachments, document downloads, or online portals.
Electronic return of your completed ballot: As of today, most states allow some form of electronic return of your ballot. If you’re not from one of the electronic-delivery states, you’ll need to get the physical ballot back to the state prior to election day. More on this later.
You can always vote in federal contests, but the ability to vote for state and local candidates is not universal. Check with your state to be sure.
No state allows you to simply vote over the internet: At least as of now…
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Which State Is “Yours” If You Live Abroad?
Your “voting state” will be the last place you lived in the United States before moving abroad. Your former physical address in that state will determine the specific ballot you get, showing the appropriate state/local candidates and ballot initiatives.
Use this voting address even if:
- You or your family no longer own a property at that address or in that state.
- You no longer have any ties to that state.
- You never intend to return to that state.
- Your address in that state no longer exists as a residence.
- You were not registered to vote when you lived there.
While researching this article, I learned that I voted in the wrong state several times, believing that I had to be formerly registered to vote in my “voting state.” When in doubt, local election officials are usually happy to help.
The official federal government program for overseas voters is the Federal Voting Assistance Program. They provide information on absentee registration, details of upcoming elections, and registration deadlines.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program is federally run, and they serve as an interface between overseas voters and their respective states. This allows all overseas voters to begin the process at the same place regardless of their voting state.
Start the registration process at the beginning of each calendar year, or at least 45 days before an election.