Your guide to voting while living abroad.

Written by: YP4 ’11 Elena Swartz

Last year I lived nearly 7,400 miles from my polling station and almost 11 hours ahead of the poll opening times in my Massachusetts hometown. I moved to Nepal in June 2017 and since then, civic engagement has had a different meaning to me than when I could walk down the street to vote or take the bus to participate in a protest.

Though I can’t be physically present in the United States, I still believe voting is my responsibility. The votes we cast in the midterm elections will shape policies that impact my loved ones in the U.S. and will determine who will fight for my interests as a citizen abroad. For instance, I will vote to uphold a policy in my home state that prohibits discrimination based on gender. I will also vote for representatives who will hopefully oppose double taxation policies that disproportionately affect citizens living abroad.

Thankfully, absentee voting systems are in place for most U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote. However, this does not come without challenges. Many U.S. citizens living abroad are not sure how to vote or how to influence policymakers from their host country. Furthermore, many believe their votes will not be counted, so they don’t see a reason to vote.

Full disclosure: I did not vote in my local elections in 2017 when I lived in Nepal. After a huge move across the world, I wasn’t motivated enough to get the necessary voting documents together when I was used to simply showing up and casting a ballot. While I had registered to vote in my hometown before moving to Nepal, I forgot to register as an absentee voter so I did not receive a ballot.

Nonetheless, I realized later that my inaction is a privilege I hold as a U.S. citizen with a voting address within the 50 states (as opposed to citizenship in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories) and without a felony record. I am still learning ways to show up and use that privilege while living abroad. I am happy to report that I recently voted in my state’s primaries from an Indonesian airport simply by photographing my election materials and emailing the images to my local elections office!

Here are some of the lessons I have learned about civic engagement from abroad.

How to vote from abroad:

Federal, state, and local elections are coming up on November 6, 2018 and there is still time to get your absentee ballot. Most Americans have the right to register to vote in elections based on their valid permanent U.S. address, regardless of where they actually live. If you have the right to vote and live abroad, this includes you! The State Department publishes  helpful information that elaborates on the information below. If you are on active duty in the military, check out this information for more specific details on voting processes while serving abroad.

Before leaving the U.S.:

  • Make sure you are registered to vote at a valid U.S. address and look up absentee voting registration procedures for residents in your zip code. It is helpful to do this in advance in case your state/locality requires you or a proxy to complete any in-person registration procedures.
  • Register a secure mailing address abroad (or your email address) where your absentee ballot is more likely to be delivered on time. This can be more difficult than expected in countries with less reliable postal infrastructure so begin your preparations early.

When you are abroad:

  • You may also request your absentee registration and ballot at votefromabroad.org. You will need to print and email/fax/mail your absentee registration (or have a proxy based in the U.S. do this for you). If you have lived abroad for multiple years (even in the same country), do not expect that voting procedures remain constant. Check annually to make sure you are still registered and able to receive a ballot.
  • Once you send your registration, check with your local elections office to ensure they received it at this link or contact them directly.
  • If you want to request a ballot but don’t think you will receive it in time for your state’s absentee voting deadlines, use the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot.

Contacting your representatives:

Voting is an important tool, but it is still critical to be in touch with your elected officials. This can be difficult due to time differences and foreign calling or fax fees, but is possible using techniques that also apply to civic engagement in the U.S.

  • Some U.S. embassies offer town hall meetings on policy issues relevant to citizens living abroad. It is easiest to learn about these opportunities via the embassy so make sure you register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to get notifications relevant to citizens where you live. Major U.S. political parties also have networks that coordinate citizens living abroad (such as Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas).
  • You can also call, fax, or email your representatives while abroad.
    • Make calls to your representatives via Skype just as you would call from the U.S. (must buy credits to make calls).
    • Send free faxes to representatives via FaxZero. However, be aware that some representatives and other government entities no longer accept faxes and others have very low response rates to faxes.
    • Callhub.io is a volunteer management platform for political campaigns. It provides mass phone messaging tools. It is more cost efficient for a larger coordinated activist group instead of a single person. Accounts must be registered with a $25 minimum credit that are used to record and send calls to representatives for $.032/30 seconds. A $3 trial period promotion is available.
    • Resistbot and io are free services that email the same message to multiple representatives simultaneously.

When I moved abroad I doubted that I would be as motivated to be active in social change efforts in the U.S. because I would no longer be physically with my activist community. However, my experience living abroad has deepened my understanding of the U.S. voting system, helped me reflect on my positionality as a U.S. citizen, and made me even more passionate about all forms of civic engagement. I hope this information is helpful to those already living abroad and those considering such a change.