This post is updated in 2016 to provide more information about how I’ve voted since that first time, given that I’ve been on the road for nearly eight years. It’s tricky, that’s for damn sure. I vote as a Floridian, and we haven’t done so well in many past elections, so I always vote with my fingers crossed, hoping that we don’t screw it up again. In fact, when I left in 2008, I cast my vote a week ahead of time — then I had to nervously board my plane to Australia and hope that they would announce the results of the election while I was in the air. Just as I handed over my plane ticket to board, a load cheer erupted from a bar nearby and people started hollering out the results. Whew! I could board and fly for 12+ hours without chewing my nails in nervous worry.
But, with past debacles aside, I vote in every election, and you should too. It’s not always easy though. I am now rarely home during state and national elections, so even early voting doesn’t really help me too much. But it’s important. It’s our right to vote. People around the world die casting their votes in politically-charged places. Soldiers have died to give you and me the right to vote. I won’t go full patriotic, but no matter which candidates are on the ballots, it’s our duty to make a reasoned choice on who will best move the country in the direction we feel best fits with the tenets of what it means to be an American.
So, if you are living abroad or traveling abroad as an American during the elections, let’s take a quick look at what you’ll need to do to cast your ballot. If you’re British, this link covers that process for you.
Options for U.S. Travelers Voting From Abroad
There was a time when this was tricky. It once involved mailing your ballot to someplace in the world, then you had to hope the local postal system delivered the ballot in time. Once it was in your hands, you then had to cast your vote and once again fling it out into the world and hope it was returned to your state in time to be counted as an absentee ballot. Now, you can still request mail-in ballots, or you can get one mailed to you, or you can download it and print. There are options. Below I’ve collected the pertinent information and links you need.
Should You Vote?
Yes. No matter how long you’ve lived overseas, if you’re an American citizen then you are able to cast a vote in your state and federal elections. That said, for those filing taxes as a non-citizen, there can be repercussions from voting. If your state has a state-tax, voting may signal to the state that you should be paying that tax on your foreign income. This policy varies from state to state, so do your research so you don’t have surprises on April 15th next year.
But you also should understand the exact policy for your state, or the state where you last held a driver’s license. If you no longer live in your state, you may still qualify since you have been a registered voter previously out of that state. If you are already overseas and are not registered, start the registration process right now. If you hope to vote via absentee ballot, that can take time and the earlier you start the better chance you have of receiving all of the right information.
And if you’re asking about voting from that fatalistic point of view about “does it even make a difference” — yes. Vote. I don’t much care even who you side with so long as you do the research and make a reasoned and thoughtful choice about who you think is the best of the available candidates to lead our country.
Before You Leave the States:
- Register to vote. If you’re not a registered voter in the U.S., it’s easy to register at your local DMV or election office. This in-person registration is fast and free. If you’re already abroad, then you can download and print the forms. Fill it all out and then mail it to your local election office. The Federal Voting Assistance Program’s site is also very handy for voter registration and easily leads you through the process. If you’re unsure of where you should register, start looking at the rules for the last place you lived in the U.S. — that’s your starting point. If you’re not sure if you’re a registered voter, check via this handy website.
- Check your travel dates. Many U.S. states and counties offer early voting. If your vacation lands near the election dates, check your local county’s website to verify when they open the early voting. This can be as early as two weeks, or as few as two days before the election. And some states offer no early voting. This calendar is a handy starting point to see when each state holds early voting this year.
- Register to vote absentee. Use the FVAP government site to submit your name for absentee voting. Military personnel and their spouses are eligible, as are any U.S. citizens living outside of the U.S. The process is different for each state, so use the website’s dropdowns to easily navigate the process. It might seem daunting but it’s actually a cinch to register for an absentee ballot. There are also several nonpartisan sites helping streamline the overseas voting process, of the handful, the Vote From Abroad site is the most user-friendly.
- Mark your calendars with voter deadlines. Once you’re registered, your state should send you an electronic or paper ballot before the elections. But glitches happen, and spam folders happen too. Mark the dates of your state’s voter deadlines so that you don’t miss them. Then you’ll know when to check your inbox for missed emails, or to followup with your state election officials. If it’s past the date when you should have received your ballot, then you may need to file an emergency vote. All states send out ballots 30-45 days before the election. If it’s less than 30 days out, you need to go with the contingency plan. This means filing a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, which can also be done online.
- Send in your ballot. Each state’s absentee ballot rules differ, so know your state’s rules before you set out on the road. Some states allow a completely electronic absentee ballot. Others require it printed and mailed. Still others request the original faxed. Ensure that you are looking at details for your specific state when you send in your ballot. Know that the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy can help you mail your ballot if you’re in a pinch and relying on questionable local postal systems.
For the official word on all of this, the U.S. government’s “Vote From Abroad” page is the most relevant spot — head there if any links above don’t work, or if you need more information.
I truly hope you take the time to apply for your passport. Although some states have a few hoops you have to jump through, it’s worth the small hassle to exercise your right to vote.