The Power of the Expat Vote

For American citizens overseas, doing your civic duty is easier than you think: Cast an absentee ballot!

The impact of absentee voting was made abundantly clear in at least one national election. One party’s candidate held a slim lead after the polls closed, but his opponent eked out a narrow victory after postal ballots were counted.

No, this wasn’t the 2000 Bush vs. Gore contest, but rather Austria’s Presidential run-off election held last May.

In comparison, America’s 8.7 million citizens living overseas are not as influential a voting bloc in the Presidential race, despite the fact that their numbers would make them, collectively, the nation’s 12th largest state. Theoretically, expats voting for President would mandate 14 electoral votes (more than five percent of the total needed to win). Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

American voters abroad are eligible to vote only in the state where they had previously resided (citizens born outside the U.S. are eligible to register where a parent lived, except in 14 states  that inexplicably prohibit this: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah). Their collective political voice is thus diluted by domestic voters, who aren’t especially sympathetic to expat issues, particularly those regarding taxation of non-residents and banking privacy. America and Eritrea are the only countries that tax their non-resident earners. Its coercive efforts (known as FATCA and FBAR) forcing foreign banks and governments to divulge expats’ private banking data have led to a recent spike in renunciations of citizenship.

Consequently, many American expats feel that voting in the November election is futile – according to the Election Assistance Commission, fewer than 600,000 overseas citizens of voting age cast a ballot in 2012. Some believe rumors that absentee votes go uncounted. Many are registered in solid Democrat “blue” or Republican “red” states, where their minority vote won’t make much, if any, difference in the outcome, while in swing states with many electoral votes, such as Ohio and Florida, an overseas vote is relatively powerful.

Still, expats “would be ignorant to think their vote is worthless,” said Ashley Arreola of Democrats Abroad, a partisan international advocacy group (the Republicans have no equivalent) that helps American non-resident voters by informing them of their rights, assisting them to register or request absentee ballots, and lobbies U.S. politicians on their behalf. “It’s important to be civically engaged, to practice your right, to have a voice and not be a bystander who just complains about the way things are.”

Is it worth the bureaucratic hassle and postage costs to obtain and send in an absentee ballot? “Absolutely,” Arreola asserted.

We just hope that American envelope glue can hold it together better than Austria’s!

Helpful Voting Resources for Americans Living Abroad

Voting laws vary state to state, however, the registration deadline for most is October 8th for the November 8th election. Don’t forget: in addition to registering, you must also request an absentee ballot, though in many states the deadline for doing so is later.

To be certain, you’d best check out one of these websites that help absentee voters get information about each state’s voting requirements, and offer web-based apps for generating state-specific voter registration and ballot-request forms:

Democrats Abroad launched this nonpartisan internet platform that includes a “Voter Help Desk” responding to individual questions.

Federal Voting Assistance Program

The U.S. government’s platform providing voting assistance for Service members, their families and overseas citizens.

A non-partisan initiative of the U.S. Vote Foundation, which includes both military and civilian Republicans (including former RNC Chair Michael Steele) and Democrats on its executive board.

Michael Bernstein
American expat Michael Bernstein moved to Vienna in 2001, abandoning his previous career in arts administration. He is now a freelance writer, editor, translator and Internet Marketing consultant. He was a regular contributor to — an E-zine about the Austrian/CEE startup scene — and was Lead Editor for its 2015 Ventures Almanach. Photo: Visual Hub

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