Voting as an American Expat

An Expats Guide to Absentee Ballots

by Caitlin
Published: Last Updated on

As long as you hold American citizenship you are eligible to vote. If you live, or are traveling, abroad you can, and must, vote. Here’s how.

Obama was my first. I had turned 18 the summer preceding those historic 2008 general elections.


I danced in the quad of my college campus. I jumped up and down with my classmates late that Tuesday evening in November as the results streamed in, knowing full well that for the first time in my life I had some small part in the democratic process, in making history.


I’d mailed in my ballot a few weeks earlier from my college in Maryland to the small town I am still to this day a registered voter in, in my home state of Vermont.


From that day in late October 2008 when I dropped my postmarked ballot into a blue post office box in Towson, Maryland up until present day – ten years later – I have yet to walk into a polling booth. And yet I have participated in every election.


After 2008 I voted again from Maryland in 2010.


In 2012 I was in Ireland.


2014 I was in Vietnam.


For the equally historic yet blazingly horrifying elections of 2016, I was in Prague.


And in 2018, while I was in the country, I mailed in my ballot to Vermont from where I was working on a congressional campaign in Ithaca, NY.


It is not always simple, voting from outside the booth – hell, these days it is not always simple voting from inside the booth, but I know that I will continue to do it, if only simply to retain my right to piss and moan across all of my social media platforms about the atrocities being committed by many of those in Washington. I will always vote, no matter the hurdles. That is my right as an American citizen and it is yours too.


That being said, it is not exceptionally difficult to navigate the voting-from-elsewhere system. And, while the process varies from state to state, I am going to do my best to give you an idea of how to navigate it and exercise your right to vote.

Steps to Voting From Abroad

Check Dates

Election Day

First, know when Election Day is.


It is always the first Tuesday in November.


In 2020 that will be:

November 3, 2020

Voter Registration

Even if you were in country, the vast majority of states do not allow same day registration, so you need to be on the ball, and even more so when voting from abroad.

The longest time before Election Day which a state requires registration is 30 days. This means early October. If you are registering in one of these states your registration documents must be postmarked by that date.

There are ten states which cut off registration 30 days before the elections. They are:
However, just because your state is not on that list does not necessarily mean you have significantly more time. Some are 28 days before, some 25. Register as soon as possible. Once you do it you never have to do it again unless your residency state changes.

Vote.org maintains a list of when voter registration deadlines are.

Absentee Request

After you have made sure that you are registered, you need to request an absentee ballot.

Again, you need to be aware of the deadlines for this. Currently, the longest time out is Nevada which requires your request be received 14 days before Election Day.

Vote.org maintains a database of these dates as well.

**Be aware of whether your request needs to be POSTMARKED or RECEIVED by a specific date. If it needs to be received, give yourself plenty of leeway**

Absentee Vote

The last deadline to know is by when your vote needs to be received. The vast majority of states require it be received on Election Day, some have specific time cut offs on that day, while some allow for it to be received several days following the election. However, two states – Louisiana and Mississippi, require your vote be received the day prior to Election Day.

Again, since these are received by dates rather than postmarked by dates, get on it as early as you can.

The same list as above lists state by state deadlines

The Voting Process

From here on out I am making the assumption that you are a registered voter.

If you are not, REGISTER NOW. Vote.org will walk you through the process.

(You can register whether or not there is an election coming up – you can register anytime from your 18th birthday onwards.)

The following are accounts of four voters submitting their absentee ballots from overseas to the states of:

Alabama

Even though I’ve been living and voting abroad for more than 20 years, I always seem to forget the exact process and have to look it up again to remind myself before each election. The best resource I’ve found is the website of the Overseas Vote Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that facilitates voting for US citizens abroad. There, you can see voting requirements and information for each state. This info includes upcoming election dates and deadlines, eligibility requirements, identification requirements, and whether the various steps can be completed by snail mail, fax, email or online.

According to the info for Alabama voters, the deadline for voter registration for the 2020 presidential election is October 19th, and the deadline to request a ballot is October 29th. When you submit your ballot, it must be postmarked by November 3rd and received by November 10th at the latest.

By completing an online form on the website, you can download your absentee ballot request. You will need to provide the last four digits of your social security number, or a state-issued ID. It’s important to note that submitting the online form simply generates the ballot request as a PDF file. You then have to print and sign this PDF and mail it to your local election office in Alabama. That address will be provided in the PDF file. Some states allow you to fax or email the form, but Alabama does not. The only step that Alabama voters can complete online is their voter registration; everything else must be done by snail mail.

The PDF also includes the name, phone number and email address of your local election official, and it’s a good idea to contact them a couple of weeks after sending your ballot request to confirm that they received it. Then wait to receive your ballot by mail. You can also use the absentee ballot tracker function on the website to find out where your ballot is.

If you have still not received your ballot within 30 days before the election, you can use the federal write-in absentee ballot option on the Overseas Vote Foundation website. Whether you are voting by absentee ballot or by federal write-in absentee ballot, the ballot will have to be signed by two witnesses who are at least 18 years of age. Once you have mailed in your ballot, you can use the website’s tracker tool to find out if or when your ballot has been counted.

Minnesota

I’ve been living abroad in the UK for nearly 4 years now and have voted absentee regularly throughout this time. For Minnesotans serving in the military or living abroad, the easiest way to register for your absentee ballot is to apply online. You can apply, download, and mail a paper application if you like, but the online application is much faster. Please note this is different from “voting early by mail” as this is specifically for US citizens/Minnesotans who live overseas.

 

You do not need to be registered to vote to apply for an absentee ballot in Minnesota—your absentee ballot application will serve as your voter registration. For the absentee ballot application, you will need an email address and an identification number: either a Minnesota-issued driver’s license, a Minnesota ID card, or be able to submit the last 4 digits of your Social Security Number.

Keep in mind that if you live abroad indefinitely with no plans to return to Minnesota, you can only vote for federal elections. Therefore, if you don’t plan on living in the US again, you will not be able to vote for local elections. When you apply, the application asks you to specify if you are “temporarily” living abroad or living abroad “indefinitely.”

OFFICE OF THE MINNESOTA SECRETARY OF STATE STEVE SIMON screenshot overseas and military voters
Minnesota Overseas Voters

 

For Minnesotans voting abroad, it is recommended that you apply for your absentee ballot prior to 28 August. Ballots will be sent out starting from 18 September, and they recommend that you mail your ballot back before 2 October, giving it plenty of time to arrive before Election Day on 3 November. Once you have registered your absentee ballot application, you will receive a confirmation email after this has been processed. The quickest and easiest way is choose to have your ballot materials sent by email. However, you can have them sent by mail or fax if you prefer.

 

The ballot materials come as a PDF email attachment and contain your ballot, voting instructions, a ballot envelope template, a Certificate of Eligibility, and a mailing envelope template. Print and fill out the ballot, and put it into the ballot envelope. You do not need a witness to certify your ballot when you vote—voters living abroad can self-certify their absentee ballot. Then fill out the Certificate of Eligibility, and place both this and your ballot envelope into your mailing envelope. If you are mailing your ballot from overseas, you will not have free postage for your ballot—ensure you pay for the correct amount of postage so there are no issues or delays with your vote.

 

Minnesota has made it very easy and straightforward for me to vote absentee since I moved abroad. After registering as an absentee voter, I am automatically sent ballots for all elections in the calendar year in which I’m eligible to vote. For the Presidential Primary earlier this year, the Hennepin County Elections office actually contacted me first! They informed me I would be eligible to vote and advised that I needed to update my absentee ballot application (Federal Postcard Application) to indicate my party preference and enable me to vote in the Primary.

 

Once your absentee ballot has been mailed back to Minnesota, you can track the status of your ballot to confirm that it was received and counted. Remember you will need to apply for an absentee ballot annually for future elections.

Pennsylvania

Since moving abroad in 2017, we have voted from Denmark in the 2018 midterm elections. Of course we are prepared to vote from abroad in the 2020 election for our home state of Pennsylvania. Our state gave us the option of voting absentee in the Demcoratic Party primary but we decided to vote in the Democrats Abroad primary. Since it’s held on Super Tuesday, we chose the earlier election.



While we were voting in the primary, a poll worker reminded us that Pennsylvania requires anyone voting from abroad to register for their ballot each calendar year. Since we decided to vote with Dems Abroad, we did not have to request one for the primary. If we decided to vote in April’s Pennsylvania primary we could have registered in advance of the primary and been eligible to vote from abroad for the entire 2020 year – primary and general election.

We registered to vote from abroad by completing an online form, but we could have emailed, faxed or used the postal service. Overseas voters also have to complete a second form – a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA). The registrations must be complete by October 19.

The next step is to request the ballot, which can be done by email, fax or postal mail by November 2. All ballots must be returned by postal mail and postmarked by November 2. Because of the time needed for mailing forms and ballots, err on the side of caution and request your ballot early and mail it back well in advance of the November 2 deadline. Democracy works from abroad, but it’s still smart to register, request and mail your ballots early.

Derek and Mike from Robe Trotting vote as expats abroad
Derek and Mike vote from abroad

Vermont

My journey to distance voting begins on the Federal Voting Assistance Program webpage where there is currently a big ‘ole red button which directs you to request your ballot.

federal voter assistance program website screenshot
Homepage of FVAP - 2020 elections

If I click on that big red button I am brought to a page to request an absentee ballot through the ‘Federal Post Card Application.’ While this process appears to be possible for all states, you do need a printer to complete it.

requesting an absentee ballot as an American expat or overseas
Federal Post Card Application on FVAP website
certifying you are an eligible voter when requesting an absentee ballot for overseas
Absentee Ballot Certification

As a Vermonter, the process from my secretary of state voter page is easier. So, I recommend you try that.

You can find it by scrolling down the FVAP page just a touch to where there is a gray dropdown menu. Choose your state and if there is a button similar to ‘Vermont’s Online Tool, click on that.

FVAp state pages - Vermont voting tools
Vermont Online Tools from FVAP Site
Vermont Secretary of State voter login page
Vermont Login Page

From the secretary of state page I can login and see my personal data as well as my history voting. I can also see that my most recent (2018 primary) ballot has been received.

On that page there is a link which reads “Click Here for Online Absentee Ballot Request” – from there I can ask for whatever ballots I need – primary or general, and I can choose how I’d like to receive them: mail, fax, or electronic.

personal information voter page. Vermont voters
My Voter Profile
Vermont ballot request form online
Request a Ballot

And that’s that. As a Vermonter I am very lucky that my state supports and does not restrict my right to vote. In fact, in the face of Coronavirus Vermont state will be mailing a ballot to ever single registered voter across the state regardless of if they request it so that they can vote safely and fairly.

Vote early, vote often

As a U.S. citizen you always have the right to vote. Unless you renounce your citizenship you can, and must, vote. It does not matter how long you have lived overseas, you can always vote in federal elections.

Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Additional Resources

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2 comments

Stacey August 31, 2018 - 11:21 pm

This is so interesting! I loved the “equally historic yet blazingly horrifying elections of 2016” LOL! Here in Barbados we cant vote if we are overseas, you literally have to fly home to vote!

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Caitlin August 31, 2018 - 11:28 pm

Oh that’s so very frustrating. I am certainly grateful that we are allowed and encouraged to be a part of our democratic process. It is sad to me that many do not take part.

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