As early voting continues ahead of the US elections on November 3, many Americans are waiting in long lines to cast their ballots across the US. But for those Americans living abroad who want to vote, there will be no queuing up outside US embassies around the world.
As embassies are federal entities, and it’s states rather than the federal government which run elections, this means embassies cannot be polling stations.
So what are the rules governing how Americans abroad can vote – and how many actually do?
Three million voters
There are 5.5 million American citizens, including military personnel, living abroad. If Americans abroad were a state, they’d be the 23rd largest.
About 3 million of these Americans abroad can vote – the rest are children. The countries with the highest numbers of adult Americans are Canada (622,000), the UK (329,000), Mexico (201,000), France (169,000), and Japan (125,000). London is the largest “American” city in the world outside of the US, with more than 100,000 Americans living in or around the capital.
If overseas voters collectively formed a voting bloc, as French overseas voters do, they would be eligible for roughly 10 electoral college votes under the US system, the same number as Minnesota.
In countries with the most American emigrants, such as Canada, France and the UK, the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is considerably more popular than President Donald Trump. There are exceptions, however. In Israel, where 113,000 American adults live, Trump is wildly popular, with a 71% approval from Israelis.
Election law in the US is highly decentralised, with most aspects of election administration determined by state governments and implemented by officials at the county level. This is true for overseas voters too.
States have differing guidelines about the deadline for receiving overseas ballots. For example, in Florida, overseas ballots postmarked by election day on November 3 but received 10 days later are still valid, whereas in Connecticut, they must be received on election day.
Overseas must designate their state of “voting residence”, the state where a person was last domiciled before leaving the US. This residence may remain valid even if the person has no functioning address or continuing ties to the state, and even if they have no intention to return there. For those American citizens who have never lived in the US, most states allow a person to vote in a state where their parent was last domiciled.
In recent years the federal government has passed several acts of Congress which provide a nationwide legal infrastructure for overseas voters, administered by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. The most important of these is the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) which provides a federal legal infrastructure for overseas voting. The UOCAVA requires all states to ensure that overseas voters can register using a single form, known as the Federal Post Card Application. It also stipulates that states must send a ballot to voters no later than 45 days before election day.
Another law passed in 2009 requires that states offer overseas voters the option to return their ballot electronically. In practice, this means voters can email or even fax their ballots back to the county superintendent of elections. However, with the exception of Nevada and Montana, voters must first register by completing and signing a printed form, which must be returned in the post to their local election office.
Some states, however, have resisted this federal requirement for electronic voting. In May, the Trump administration also issued guidelines telling states to discourage overseas residents from returning votes electronically because of security risks. The matter is now subject to ongoing litigation by overseas voters.
In spite of these federal protections, overseas voter participation is historically low. Americans abroad are around ten times less likely to vote in US elections than those within the US. In 2016, just 7.8% of eligible Americans living abroad cast their vote in the presidential election. For midterm elections of candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate, turnout is even lower – at 4.7% in 2018.
Turnout varies by country of residency. About 17% of Americans in Germany voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to about 7% of Americans in France. Americans living in the UK have the second highest turnout after Germany, while those living in Mexico and South Korea have among the lowest.
There are multiple reasons why Americans living abroad don’t vote. One explanation may simply be a lack of interest or sense of connection to the elections. Some Americans may avoid voting in elections because establishing a state of voting residence can sometimes make an American eligible for state and local taxes. And in spite of efforts to simplify the process, registering to vote can still be laborious and time intensive.
Every vote counts
While they may not vote in huge numbers, overseas voters can make a difference in a tight election. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won 202 more votes than George W Bush in Florida on election day. But after a recount, Bush was able to overcome Gore’s lead through his advantage in postal voting, including overseas votes, to win by a tiny margin of just 537 votes.
Later, it was revealed that 680 overseas votes were counted illegally. Researchers subsequently estimated that under some realistic scenarios, these overseas votes were enough to tip the election from Gore to Bush.
The Florida 2000 scenario underscores the importance of every vote in a tight contest. Even with their relatively low turnout, American overseas voters can be decisive in US election outcomes.