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How US Expats Can Vote in the 2020 Election

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the CPAs For Expats blog. In today’s post, we are going to take a break from strictly tax-related information, but we are going to cover a subject that has been in the news quite a bit lately: the spectacle known as Decision 2020.


The countdown is well underway to November 3, when Americans are to engage in that most sublime of civic rituals, the casting of their ballots. This year, up for grabs will be 11 state governorships, two territorial governorships, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 33 out of the 100 seats in the Senate, and (you may have heard) the offices of President and Vice President, where Republican President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are facing Democratic challengers former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware and Senator Kamala Harris of California.


This article will not go into any of the partisan or political aspects of the election—there are plenty of places on the internet to find that kind of writing. Our focus today is to offer some direction to the millions of US citizens abroad in how to exercise one of their most important constitutional rights—the right to choose the representatives for their country’s government.

How Presidential Elections Work in the US

The United States is a unique country in many respects, but one of the most unique is its unusual voting system. While in many countries the elections for the central government are controlled by that same government, the Constitution actually leaves most of the decision-making authority in how to administer elections to the individual states.


In addition, the US system is different in another way. In the US, the president and the vice president are not elected by a majority of the popular vote, but rather by the “Electoral College”, where states are awarded votes according to the number of representatives they have in Congress, with a minimum of three for the least populous states (e.g., Delaware and Wyoming) and as much as 55 for the most populated (California). With the exception of Maine and Nebraska (which award two electors to the statewide victor and one each per congressional district), states award their electors to candidates on a winner-take-all basis. Historically, this has resulted in five different cases where a candidate was elected president despite more voters preferring the other candidate: Donald Trump in 2016, George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and John Quincy Adams in 1824 (Adams didn’t win the most Electoral votes either—he was picked by the House of Representatives when no candidate was able to get a majority in the Electoral College).


The current system has been in place since the passage of the 12th Amendment, which was enacted after the disputed Election of 1800 (sing it with me: “Can we get back to politics?”/“Please???”/“Yo—every action has an equal opposite reaction…”; you know the rest).


The decentralized nature of election law can result in different states having slightly different rules regarding who is eligible to vote, as well as different deadlines. For expats, that can make more of a difference than you would expect, as we will explain.

Voting by Mail in 2020

This year, due to the coronavirus epidemic, voting early and casing ballots by mail is predicted to be a much larger part of the election process than it is in a normal year. Every state is taking a different approach to managing the election process with as few virus-related issues as possible—some are closing or consolidating polling places, others are sending mail-in ballots to every eligible voter, and some are allowing voters not normally allowed to vote absentee to request a mail-in ballot. However, well-publicized problems with the Post Office, as well as distrust of mail-in voting by a significant portion of the electorate, means that the mail-in system might not be utilized by as much of the population as you would expect. For more information about your state’s plans, I recommend checking out FiveThirtyEight’s guide to mail-in voting.


As a US expat, your rights aren’t dependent on your state’s coronavirus contingency plans, as the law made a dispensation for you more than 30 years ago.

Voting as a Citizen Abroad

In general, if you lived in the US in the past, then you retain the right to vote in the last state in which you lived. Under the “Uniformed and Overseas Citizens and Absentee Voting Act” (or “UOCAVA”—Washington and its acronyms again), originally passed in 1986 and updated in 2009, states are required to put policies in place to allow members of the military, their families, and US citizens abroad to vote using absentee ballots in federal elections.


If you are a voter covered by UOCAVA, you are entitled to the following rights:

  1. Your state must allow you to register to vote and to request an absentee ballot if the request is received at least 30 days before an election;

  2. The state must send you an absentee ballot with enough time to fill it out and send it back before the election;

  3. The state must allow you to request your registration form and absentee ballot electronically;

  4. The state must allow you to cast a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot under certain conditions (more on that later);

  5. The state must allow you to track your ballot though the system and verify whether it has been received by the state’s election official; and

  6. The state must accept absentee ballots even if they aren’t notarized or if they are on nonstandard-sized paper or in a nonstandard-type of envelope.

  7. These rights apply no matter how long you have lived abroad and whether or not you intend on returning to the United States. It also doesn’t matter if you have ever voted in the past or if you maintain a US residence.

For US citizens who were born outside the US, the rules are a little more complicated. Some states (e.g., Pennsylvania, Florida) will not allow someone who never lived in the US to register in that state. Others allow you to register to vote in that state if you have a parent registered in that state (e.g., Nebraska), a parent who used to be domiciled in that state (e.g., New York, Illinois), or if you have a parent who is an eligible voter and you intend to reside in that state (e.g., Oregon). Some states restrict voters who never resided in the US to voting for federal offices only. You can find the complete guide here.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program

To assist in navigating these labyrinthine rules, the government established the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), which offers general and state-by-state guides for voting as an expat or service member.

Applying for your absentee ballot

The centerpiece of the FVAP is the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), which is a standardized form which is accepted in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the five territories as an absentee ballot application and voter registration form. You can print up the form and fill it out by hand or you can fill in your information online and have the website format the form for you. In any case you need to print the form and sign it, and then you need to send it to your state’s election office. Most states allow you to send in the FPCA by mail, fax, and email.


Once your application has been received, the state will process it and send you an absentee ballot, either by mail, fax, or email.

Sending in your absentee ballot

Some states may allow you to send in your absentee ballot electronically or by fax, but most still require absentee ballots to be mailed in to the address listed by your state or county’s election official. You can also use a private delivery service, such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL, or you can go to your local US embassy or consulate and send the ballot in via diplomatic pouch.


When mailing your ballot, put your completed ballot in a blank envelope and put the blank envelope in a second envelope together with your identifying information. This way when your ballot is opened and counted, the identifying information is not attached to the secret ballot. You can track the progress of your ballot at your jurisdiction’s website.

Every state has its own deadline as to when absentee ballots need to be mailed or received. The FVAP recommends to send in your absentee ballot no later than October 13 if you are voting from outside the US. Most states require that an absentee ballot be postmarked by Election Day, and many states will count ballots that arrive up to a full week after election day—which means that if a swing state has a lot of absentee ballots, we may not know the winner of the election until several days (at least) after Election Day.

Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot

If you haven’t received your ballot by a month or so before the election, it’s time to consider using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB). The FWAB is a backup ballot which is counted in case your real ballot never arrives. If your real ballot does arrive, you should use the real ballot—the election officials will only count one of the ballots.

Conclusion

According to the US Election Assistance Commission, 57.2 million voters (more than 40% of all votes cast) voted by mail, by absentee ballot, or by another early voting method in 2016—more than double the amount from just 12 years before. More than 25 million people (17.7%) voted using absentee ballots. Due to the pandemic, those numbers are expected to skyrocket even further in 2020.


No matter what happens, or who wins the election, CPAs For Expats will be here to help, because one thing that is assured not to change with the results of the election is the IRS demanding attention every year. Contact us for a quote, and stay safe out there while exercising your rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness (“We fought for these ideals/we shouldn't settle for less…”, OK, I’ll stop), and the franchise.

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