How to Vote in US Elections When Living Internationally

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You’ve taken the leap and moved to a new country, packed up your life and unpacked it again, and you are starting to settle in…

 

But there is one last quick task to do before you can truly kick back and relax: register to vote!

 

If you are an American citizen over the age of 18, you are eligible to vote, no matter where in the world you live!

 
 

The Basics of How to Vote in US Elections While Living Abroad

In order to vote via absentee ballots, you must complete a two-step process.

 
  1. Submit a Federal Post-Card Application to your local election official each year 45 days before an election. The official will:

  2. Confirm your eligibility to vote, and

  3. Send you an absentee ballot, either through the mail or electronically

  4. You must then submit your absentee ballot so that it arrives BEFORE you state’s return deadline

 

You can find out more on the US State Department’s site here.

 
 

Eligibility

All American citizens are allowed to vote in US elections, so long as they are over the age of 18. This extends to Americans who have never themselves lived in the US*, as well as Americans who have moved from the US abroad. Everyone is guaranteed the ability to vote in federal elections (your state’s House of Representatives, Senators, as well as for President/Vice President), but the ability to vote down-ballot (such as Governor, state legislature, school boards, judges, ballot measures etc) depends on the state and how you fill out your request. More on this below!

 

The Process

In order to vote from abroad, you must register a FCPA (Federal Post Card Application) every single calendar year in order to validate that you are in fact living abroad, and to receive the protections on your ballot I mentioned above! I personally send mine every January so I can vote in the primaries as well.

 

You can register for the FCPA and ensure you are registered to vote with your state either at the government-run website: FVAP.gov or at VoteFromAbroad.org, a nonpartisan website that is a little more user-friendly!

 

Both websites have a list of upcoming election dates, and state-by-state details on registering to vote.

Two Important Details to Consider While You Register

What address to use when voting absentee

 

Your voting address is the last place you lived in the US before moving abroad. You can use that address even if:

 
  • Your family no longer owns the property

  • You no longer have ties to that state

  • You don’t intend to return

  • Your address no longer exists as a residence

  • You weren’t registered to vote previously

 

Hopefully, this makes everything easier for you! You won’t have to worry about trying to re-register to a family member’s house or anything like that.

 

If you or a relative has never lived in the US, the “voting address” is the address of the last place your US citizen parent lived in the US. If both of your parents are US citizens, you may use the last US address of either one.

 

“Intent to return” on absentee ballots

 

While you register, you will be asked whether or not you “intend to return” to the United States.

 

Each state decides if some or all of its overseas voters may vote in state elections (such as Governor, state legislature and ballot measures), based on which voter category you select. In some states, if you mark that you do not intend to return, you are not eligible to vote in down-ballot races (such as Governor, state legislature, school boards, judges, ballot measures etc).

 
  • If you indicate on your FPCA that you “intend to return”: all 50 states will send a ballot that includes down-ballot elections.

  • If you indicate on your FPCA that your “intent to return is uncertain”: 33 states will send a ballot that includes state elections. The remaining 17 states will send “return uncertain” and “never resided” voters a ballot with federal elections only.

  • The 17 states that do not provide a state ballot to “return uncertain” and “never resided” voters are: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida (some counties), Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

 

What Would Registering to Vote from Abroad Mean for My Tax Status?

Registering to vote does not change your tax status.

 

But selecting “intend to return” rather than “my return is uncertain” may be one of several factors your state uses to determine whether you may be subject to state income tax. (Seven states — Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming—do not impose a state income tax.) Before you note that you “intend to return” on your form, you may consider seeking advice on these matters from a tax professional.

How to Return Your Ballot

Every state is different! When you receive your ballot, it will share with you the options available for your state. You can also look up your state here and see what options you’ll have.

 

1. Submit by Email

 

This is by far the easiest option! Many states are starting to make it easier to vote/return ballots, and email is one of the easiest and most reliable ways to know that your ballot is submitted to the right place! More than half of the states that have allowances for overseas voters to send back their filled ballots via email or an online portal.

 

2. Submit by Fax

 

Remember fax machines?! Even though it’s now 2022, there are many states that still allow for filled ballots to be submitted by fax! If you can’t get your hands on a fax machine, luckily, there are multiple tech work-arounds.

 

The first are online email-to-fax services, or phone fax apps. These allow you to scan/take a photo of each page, and will send them “via fax” to the number provided. Depending on the number of pages you have to submit, it may be free or you may have to pay a small fee. Once you’ve sent in your ballot, I’d encourage you to check the next week with your local election office or the state’s “track your ballot” page and ensure that it’s been received. Even though I vote in Houston, I’ve been able to hear back from my local election office within 1 day!

 

The second option is to work with FVAP. You can email your ballot materials to FVAP and they will fax the materials to your Local Election Office (LEO) on your behalf. The basic steps are:

 
  • a. Photograph or scan in your ballot and any required materials as an email attachment. You must include the FVAP fax transmission coversheet at www.fvap.gov/eo/overview/materials/forms (scroll to the bottom of that page).
  • b. Send the email attachment of your ballot materials, WITH the filled coversheet, to [email protected]
  • c. FVAP will print out the email attachment and use a fax machine to fax your ballot and other election materials to your Local Election Official.
 

Don’t wait until the last minute when using the FVAP fax service! The service can get overloaded. For this, again I would recommend sending it in at least one week before Election Day.

 

3. Submit by Mail

 

There are 19 states that require all ballots to be returned by mail only. If this is the case for you, you should get an “envelope” to print with your ballot. Many states will not require postage if it is mailed from within the US (so for the diplomatic pouch, you’d be all set!) but that won’t cover you if you use local mail systems or a private courier. If you need a postage-paid envelope to print, you can find one on the FVAP forms + materials website.

 
  1. Local Option: If you feel like your country’s mail system is reliable, you’re able to send your ballot in the mail! If you do this option, I would encourage you to mail it as close to the 3-4 week mark (in advance of Election Day) and track your ballot using your state’s voting page to ensure it is received.

  2. FEDEX/DHL/UPS: If you find yourself in a time crunch, or you believe that your country’s mail system is not dependable, you can use professional courier services such as FedEx, DHL, or UPS at your own expense. This isn’t a cheap option, but if voting is important to you, you may be willing to spend the extra cost! NOTE: FedEx does not deliver to P.O. boxes.

  3. Embassy Drop: US embassies around the world offer diplomatic pouch services to return ballots during election seasons. You can contact your local embassy to find out more, or if you are enrolled in the STEP program, they may have already shared with you details via email!

  4. Use a friend: Each state has different rules about who can touch or handle your ballot, but in many cases, if your ballot is completely sealed and ready to be put into a mailbox, you can have a friend carry your ballot back to the US and mail it there for you. You can double-check your state’s collection laws here.

Now Vote!

That’s a lot of information for you to digest – but I promise when you head to www.FVAP.gov or www.votefromabroad.org, you can get yourself set up to vote within just a few minutes. And once your ballot comes in (usually via email, 45 days before Election Day!), start looking up the choices, make your selections, and get that ballot back to the US!

 

Marisa Grimes is a life-long expat, born and raised in Singapore, and currently raising her own family in Kigali, Rwanda. Since 2012, she’s spent nine of the past ten years living in East Africa and has managed to vote in every election during that period! She currently works for One Acre Fund, which serves over one million smallholder farmers on their path to prosperity. In her free time, you can find her reading, hiking, or running her small nonprofit Kind Futures Giving.

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