Voting Abroad as a U.S. Citizen

As a U.S. citizen living abroad, voting can present unique challenges. Whether traveling for work or stationed overseas for military duty, understanding your voting rights is essential.

This article talks about the different ways citizens of the United States can cast their votes in the local, state, federal, and presidential elections. The article also explores the eligibility criteria for becoming an absentee voter and how to request an absentee ballot. It aims to give you the information you need to exercise your right to vote.

Ways for U.S. Citizens to Vote

Understanding the available voting methods is the first step to ensure you can take part in the election. The following are the options U.S. citizens have to cast their votes.

  1. In-person voting. The voter can exercise their right to vote by going to the polling place on the date set by their state's election office.
  2. Absentee voting. This is available to voters who can't vote in person due to illness, travel, or being away from their voting residence. This is also available to active duty military members and their families.
  3. Vote by mail. Here, voters get their ballots through the mail. Then, they fill them out and mail them back to their election office or drop them off at a designated location on or before the deadline set by their state election office. The specific rules on the vote-by-mail system may vary in every state. Some states automatically send mail ballots to all registered voters. Others need voters to request a mail ballot.

What Is the Difference Between Absentee Voting and Vote by Mail?

Absentee voting allows voters who can't be in their voting residence on Election Day to vote. This is particularly useful for those traveling overseas, dealing with illness, or stationed overseas for military service. Voters should request an absentee ballot from their voting residence.

In contrast, voting by mail is offered to all registered voters in a state. In this process, election officials send ballots through the mail to registered voters. But, like absentee voting, the voter does not need to come to the polling place in person. The voter only needs to mail the ballot at the local election office.

Who Is Eligible to Vote as an Absentee Voter?

Under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), you can vote as an absentee voter if you fall under any of the following:

1. A U.S. citizen living outside of the United States

2. Active duty service members and their eligible spouses or family members of the:

  • Uniformed services
  • Merchant marine
  • Commissioned corps of the Public Health Service or
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

In some states, a member of the National Guard activated under state orders may also vote as an absentee voter. Note that the eligibility to vote as an absentee voter may vary in every state. You must check your state election office for state-specific requirements.

How To Vote When Abroad

You may take the following steps if you would like to vote as an absentee voter:

  1. Register and Request an Absentee Ballot

First, you register by sending a completed Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to your local election office. The FPCA will confirm your eligibility to vote and request your absentee ballots for any elections held that year.

How To Get an FPCA?

There are two ways you can get a Federal Post Card Application.

1. Completing FPCA online — Visit the FVAP website and use the online assistant to complete your FPCA. Once completed, download the PDF package, print, sign, and mail it to your local election office.

2. Getting a hard copy — You can get a hard copy of the FPCA form on any military base or at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Once completed, you can mail your application to your local election office.

You can find the address of your local election office in this list provided by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). You can mail your FPCA postage-free by using the FVAP return envelopes.

The FPCA will ask for some basic information, including your state ID number or the last four digits of your Social Security number. If you have neither a state ID nor a Social Security number, you can provide any identifying information that could help your local election office verify your eligibility to vote.

3. Receive Your Absentee Ballot — After your election officials receive your absentee ballot request, they will process it and determine the correct ballot for you. If you have any concerns about the status of your application, it is best to contact your local election office. If election officials deny your application or need further information, they will contact you.

Election officials must send absentee ballots to those qualified voters at least 45 days before an election. Most states need a lead time of about 45 calendar days to receive and process your absentee ballot.

4. Submit Your Absentee Ballot — Once you get your absentee ballot, complete it and return it as soon as possible. Pay close attention to the return methods authorized by your state. Ensure you follow the instructions sent along with your ballot, including whether the state requires a secrecy envelope.

You should also check the deadline to submit your ballot. Each state has its deadline on when the election office should receive your absentee ballot. You can find more information by picking your state on this FVAP website.

How Often Should I File for FPCA?

Completing and submitting a Federal Post Card Application every January is recommended to ensure that you consistently get an absentee ballot while away from your voting residence. You should do so every time you move away from your voting residence or at least 90 days before the election day you want to take part in.

Write-In Ballot

If you didn't get your ballot 30 days before the election you want to vote in, you can vote using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) as a backup.

Once you have the ballot, you can fill in the candidate you're voting for. Then, print and sign the form and mail it to your local election office. When you send your ballot, write "security envelope" on the envelope containing the ballot to ensure your vote stays private.

Note that the following states need you to register and request an absentee ballot before you can use a write-in absentee ballot:

  • Alabama
  • American Samoa
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Guam
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Voting Abroad Rules Vary by State

Which elections can you vote in? That also depends on your home state. Just about every state allows absentee voting in federal, primary, and general elections. Other states allow overseas citizens to vote for state and local candidates and referendums.

You can learn more about your state's regulations about voting when abroad at the website of the Nonpartisan Voter Services for U.S. Citizens Overseas and Uniformed Services Members.

Secure Your Voting Rights with Legal Guidance

Navigating the process of voting abroad as a U.S. citizen may seem daunting. But understanding your options for casting your vote makes it more manageable. Remember that every vote counts, and exercising your right to vote is a way for you to take part in the democratic process. Whether you are facing challenges as an overseas voter or simply seeking help with voter registration, the legal advice of a civil rights attorney can be helpful.

A civil rights attorney specializing in election law can give you the guidance and clarity you need as you navigate the voting process. Contact a civil rights attorney today to ensure you can exercise your right to vote in the upcoming election.

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