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With this year’s historic election amidst a global pandemic and a period of political discourse with the Black Lives Matter movement, voters abroad are trying to make their vote count now more than ever before. The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) reports that there are 2.9 million Americans eligible to vote from abroad this election. While generally only 7% of overseas Americans voted in 2016 and only 4% in 2012, this year is proving to be dramatically different with increased engagement.

Many states are reporting a significant uptick in the volume of requests for overseas ballots, more than historically have ever been demanded before. Maine, for example, is reporting over 5,000 ballot requests this year, compared to 2016 when the state only received under 500 requests. Even Florida, a notorious swing state in every election, noted that while in 2016 they only received 73,670 ballots; this year alone they have sent out 103,818 ballots to overseas voters. Additionally, organizations such as Overseas Vote and the U.S. Vote Foundation are reporting the same phenomena, seeing a significant increase in their traffic and requests for information. For Overseas Vote, there is a 175% increase in requests for assistance since 2016. There is a clear surge in Americans overseas trying to make their vote count; however, with different rules per state and the challenges COVID-19 is bringing, this may be more difficult than in previous years.

Accessing voter information can be difficult as each state has a different process and bandwidth to process requests. While some states may have more resources in their offices to answer calls or reply to emails with questions on voting, others simply do not. Due to COVID-19, voting by mail is being offered to more Americans than ever before, with 84% of the U.S. population gaining the option. There is now additional strain on countless offices across the country to send and process ballots for those in the U.S. and those living overseas, particularly with the increased voting engagement. While domestic voters who don’t trust mail in voting or may have not gotten their absentee ballot can vote in person, overseas voters are at the mercy of a reply to an email or someone answering their phone calls. 

Additionally with the pandemic, there are varying levels of lockdowns across the world, and some can’t leave their homes to mail in their ballot even if they did receive it. As most states don’t offer online voting due to security risks, mail-in ballots are the only option. Of the American’s who have voted overseas in the last three elections, one-third stated that they were concerned about their host countries’ mail systems to deliver their ballot. Those voters, however, do have the option of sending their vote back to the U.S. via a “diplomatic pouch” that can be obtained at their embassy; however, this can take up to eight weeks which may mean it gets to its destination too late for the vote to be counted. Additionally, with the pandemic many embassies are closed and not as able to coordinate ballot drop-off services as they may have in the past. This leaves those voters relying on their host countries’ mail system, which in some cases may not be reliable. 

Out of the Americans who were eligible to vote abroad in 2016, 30% stated that they had an issue with their absentee ballot which ultimately led to their vote not counting. This statistic however, is missing key data on what the barriers were to them completing their vote. The barriers could be the online portals per state, information provided by the state for FVAP, or issues in mailing ballots. Without this key data there’s no clear way forward in creating a more accessible overseas voting process. This statistic causes concerns for how high the percentage could be this year with increased engagement. It’s critical that FVAP collect data on barriers to voting as this is critical to improving our democratic process by making it more equitable. 

Additionally, military personnel and their families abroad have designated officers who share access to voting resources and share deadlines or changes. In 2018, research done by FVAP found that while only 26% of military personnel abroad voted, 52% of American civilians abroad voted. With this stark contrast in resources and voting patterns, it should be the case that civilians have resources allocated to them as well by their government to enable and support their voting process while abroad. 

It’s clear that overseas voting has challenges that predate the pandemic, and now with the current issues voters at home and overseas are facing, it seems that there is an opportunity to challenge and change our voting systems. Investing in additional outreach and support for civilian overseas voters, better infrastructure, and systems per state to send and process ballots and examining secure online voting could all be a start to a more accessible and equitable overseas voting process. Perhaps if this work had been done before, there could have been a more seamless transition to offering mail in voting for U.S. citizens at home potentially. Voting is at the bedrock of our democracy, and it’s clear that overseas voting must adapt to the needs and unique challenges Americans face today in order to remain equitable and relevant; if we don’t, our democracy is ultimately at stake.  

Manaal Farooqi

Manaal Farooqi is passionate about equity and innovation in her work. She writes primarily on issues pertaining to violence against women, Islamophobia, racial justice, and contemporary culture.