Americans abroad are proud of their citizenship and vigilant in guarding their constitutional right to help elect their President, Vice President and Members of Congress. For most overseas Americans, their right to vote is the primary means available to them to participate in the American democratic process. Civilian voter turnout overseas has increased steadily in recent years, and overseas Americans have historically had higher election participation rates than their state-side counterparts â€“ typically 3+% of votes cast, although they comprise only about 2% of the electorate. Unfortunately â€“ and despite some recent reforms â€“ overseas voters continue to face a range of obstacles and bureaucratic pitfalls that all too frequently frustrate their efforts to exercise their cherished democratic rights.
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986 defines the rights of overseas U.S. citizens to vote in U.S. federal elections, and sets out the parameters for registering and voting by absentee ballot from overseas. UOCAVA was complemented by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 that addressed a plethora of problems in voting domestically and attempted to eliminate some of those faced by overseas absentee voters.
Nevertheless, overseas citizens still face a number of obstacles in casting their votes and having them counted. In the Overseas Vote Foundation 2008 Post Election Voter Survey, more than one in five (22%) of the 24,000 respondents did not receive the official ballot they expected; nearly one-third (31%) of experienced overseas voters still had questions or problems when registering to vote; and more than half (52%) of those who tried but could not vote, were unable to because their ballots were late or did not arrive at all.
MOVE: what did it do?
In October 2009, the landmark Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act was signed into law, bringing further needed changes to the process. Among other provisions, MOVE:
- allows military and overseas voters to request and receive election materials (registration forms, blank ballots, election information) electronically (halving the time needed by many voters to get their ballots back to be counted.
- ensures that states send out ballots 45 days before the election so voters are sure to receive them in time.
- prohibits states from rejecting a marked ballot solely on the basis of a missing notary signature, paper size, and other restrictions.
What still needs to be done?
American citizens who do not meet state residency requirements should have the right to vote in federal elections in all states and the District of Columbia at the legal voting residence of their U.S. citizen parent(s). Today, only seventeen states explicitly enable Americans who cannot satisfy state residency requirements to exercise their constitutional right to vote in federal elections, though some states are introducing new initiatives
Electronic transmission of voting materials / updating of registration information: Voters should be able to request and receive their ballots by email or to download them from the Internet, to be completed and returned by mail. Faxing should never be the only means of electronic transmission accepted, as it is a viable option for a rapidly decreasing number of voters. Voters should also be able to review and update their registration information on line, reducing the risk of incorrect or outdated addresses.
Witness requirements: Just as MOVE eliminated any need for notarization, which is impossible or extremely costly for many military and overseas voters, it is necessary to eliminate the need for a witness signature on a ballot request or envelope. A declaration acceptable to the states should be developed to be signed by the voter acknowledging that any material misstatement of fact in completing the ballot request/ballot may be grounds for a conviction of perjury.
Postmark and date stamp requirements should be eliminated; all dated ballots should be accepted from all military and overseas voters. Postmark requirements have been eliminated for the military but not explicitly for overseas voters, many of whom prefer to entrust their ballots to express mail or courier services.
Statistical reporting is needed on the number of overseas absentee ballots transmitted and received. In order to track problems and continue to improve the UOCAVA voting process, information is needed for both military and overseas civilian voters on the number of registration applications received, the number rejected, the number of ballots requested, the number of ballots rejected and the reasons for any rejection in all cases.
The deadline for the receipt of overseas ballots should, wherever possible, be uniformly fixed on Election Day, and overseas ballots counted simultaneously with domestic ballots, ensuring that overseas votes are taken into account in the announcement of the results of the election.
No voted ballots should be required to be received before the official Election Day.
In the event of special emergency elections, the period between announcement of the elections and receipt of all ballots should be uniformly fixed at 60 days.
Our organizations are all original members of the newly formed Alliance for Military and Overseas Voting Rights (AMOVR), grouping overseas citizensâ€™ advocacy organizations; state, local and federal election officials; and all branches of the military including active and retired service members and their families. The stated goals of the Alliance are to effect real change in voting procedures for UOCAVA voters before the 2012 elections and to ensure that absent military and overseas civilian voters enjoy an equal right and ability to vote. Together, we will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to find other appropriate and economically feasible ways to enhance the ability of absent uniformed service voters and overseas Americans in the private sector to register and vote absentee in U.S. federal elections.