For most overseas Americans, the right to vote is their primary means of participating in the American democratic process. Civilian voter turnout overseas has increased steadily in recent years: overseas Americans have historically had higher voter participation rates than their state-side counterparts (typically representing 3+% of all votes cast). In a population currently estimated by the State Department at 7.6 million (the equivalent of the 13th state), this means that the overseas vote is a crucial component of every American election.
Military and overseas voters still, however, face obstacles in casting their ballots and having them counted. Despite overall improvement in the ballot request and return process (most overseas voters now use some form of electronic method to request their ballots), the Overseas Vote Foundation 2014 Post Election Voter Survey showed that 25% of respondents could not vote because they received their ballot too late or not at all (up from 22% in 2012); and confusion persists as to filing requirements (e.g. witness signatures) and process (e.g. use of the FWAB). In all, the survey found a 5.4 increase in the number of respondents reporting that they were unable to complete all the steps in the overseas voting process as compared to survey results in 2010 and 2012.
What still needs to be done?
All overseas voters’ ballot requests must clearly apply to all elections in the year. Among those who reported not using the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to request a ballot, 29.2% explained “I thought I was still registered”. This points up an unexpected problem stemming from the MOVE Act’s elimination of a clause that defined the validity of the official FPCA voter registration/ballot request form for overseas and military voters as two General Election cycles. Since MOVE (Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act), voters must register again every year for all elections to be held in that year.
Some states continue to send ballots without requiring this step; elsewhere, the validity of the FPCA varies significantly across election jurisdictions: some election officials interpret the ballot request as applying to even run-off and special elections in the calendar year, while others say voters should request ballots individually for each election. Voters do not know whether their FPCA form keeps them registered beyond one calendar year in their state or for one single election. And voters may move from the first kind of state to the second, and be caught unaware that they will not receive a ballot for a special election in the event of the death or resignation of a legislator.
In addition, to avoid possible disenfranchisement 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.
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, thirty states and the District of Columbia explicitly enable Americans who cannot satisfy state residency requirements to exercise their constitutional right to vote in federal elections.
Efforts to inform and educate the overseas electorate must be stepped up. The OVF survey found that 6.5% of respondents tried but could not use the FPCA. It also found that 29.7% of respondents missed the voter registration deadline in their state and 24.8% had technical difficulties in completing their form (14.6%, still today, found the form confusing). In addition, 45.5% were unaware of their ability to use the “emergency” FWAB (Federal Write-In Ballot) if their ballot did not arrive on time, which was the case for 23.2%.
More than anything else, what these results point to is a lack of education: education of the overseas voter (which should not be the sole responsibility of overseas advocacy and political organizations), of election officials (who should uniformly apply and interpret the “single election cycle” requirement, if it is to be maintained, across the board), and of government itself (while the Federal Voting Assistance Program – FVAP - has made changes to the FPCA, it is clear that more are needed to clear up remaining confusion). Finally, over 85% of respondents reported not using their state voter look-up tools which might have told them when the deadline was or that their registration or ballot had or had not been received. For at least half of these, the reason must be that the voters were simply unaware of the possibility.
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 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. We are heartened to see that two new Commissioners have been appointed to the Election Assistance Commission, though it still lacks one Commissioner for its full complement of four. To enable it to carry out its mission under the Help America Vote Act, we now urge Congress to approve full funding for the Commission.
In addition, all attempts by the Federal Voting Assistance Program to obtain a clear picture of the overseas voting population should, in the absence of any other valid count or estimate, be encouraged.
Continuing to improve the process
Our organizations have worked since the Seventies, first, to obtain the right to vote for overseas citizens and since, to ensure that absent military and overseas civilian voters enjoy an equal right and ability to vote. We all also support all current efforts for the adoption of UMOVA (the Uniform Military and Overseas Voter Act) on state level. Together, we will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to find all 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.