Understanding Overseas Citizen Voters: Research from the Field and Observations from 2016

In a world where data drives decisions, communication is critical and customer service is a must, how do we support the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act’s most difficult-to-reach population—overseas citizens? The Federal Voting Assistance Program conducted groundbreaking research to increase its knowledge of and ability to support these voters.

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About the Author
David Beirne
is director of the Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program. He administers the federal responsibilities of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act for the secretary of defense. With an extensive background in election administration and voter education, he works to ensure that military personnel, their families and overseas citizens are aware of their right to vote and have the tools to successfully do so—from anywhere in the world.

Overseas citizens can be a difficult population to reach. How do we provide them a level of customer support that will help them cast a ballot, particularly when communication is so important and data should drive outreach methodologies? To increase its knowledge of and ability to support these voters, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, or FVAP, conducted groundbreaking research to develop a detailed analysis of American citizens residing abroad and estimate the total population of eligible voters. While this initial research only scratches the surface of the overall overseas population, it does lay the foundation that will allow the elections community to better serve these voters and help FVAP fulfill its mission.

FVAP is the U.S. Department of Defense, or DoD, program charged with administering the federal responsibilities of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA. Its mission is to help ensure service members, their eligible family members and overseas citizens are aware of their right to vote and have the tools and resources to successfully do so. A benefit of the program’s placement within DoD is access to the Defense Manpower Data Center—DoD’s central source for personnel information, innovative data solutions and research. This access allows FVAP to target messages directly to military members and their families. FVAP can send voting reminders and urge them to submit a new registration and ballot request application, conduct training at military installations, and survey them to study their voting behaviors and understand demographic shifts.

The ability to conduct surveys of the active duty military population has helped FVAP make remarkable progress in its efforts to develop and deliver voting assistance resources and identify areas for further improvement. FVAP’s research shows military members who use an FVAP voting assistance resource are more likely to return their ballots. However, more must be done to improve overall awareness of resources and to dispel absentee voting myths.

Research of the military has led to improved resources and targeted outreach efforts, but what about U.S. citizens who reside abroad? Although FVAP is within DoD, the program also serves as the same absentee voting resource for overseas citizens. It is difficult to provide voting assistance to this population since not much is known about them. This challenge is further compounded by the difficulty in studying them, largely because there is no comprehensive list of all U.S. citizens living overseas or central data source to tap into.

To tackle these issues and improve FVAP’s reach to overseas citizens, so those who want to vote are able do so successfully, FVAP conducted the Overseas Citizen Population Analysis, or OCPA, study.1 The resulting report provides a detailed analysis of American voters overseas that estimates the population of eligible voters and includes results of the first representative survey of registered overseas voters who requested an absentee ballot.

What We Can Estimate:2

  • 5.7 million U.S. citizens overseas
  • 2.6 million eligible to vote (18 years or older)
  • 4 percent of eligible overseas voters participated in the 2014 election
  • 57 percent of registered overseas citizens who requested a ballot in 2014 voted

Overseas Voter Turnout: Some Pieces of the Puzzle
The 4 percent turnout of all eligible overseas citizens is markedly lower than the 57 percent rate for registered overseas voters. While FVAP expects to see an increase in the voting rates for the 2016 presidential election, it is exploring whether the overall rate for 2014 is due to low awareness of how to vote or if it is related to other factors.

When attempting to interpret the overall turnout among overseas citizens, it is important to keep in mind what this research does and does not tell us about overseas voters.

We know a great deal about a narrow segment of overseas citizens: those who registered to vote and requested a ballot. However, for the majority of overseas citizens—those who did not register to vote and request a ballot—we don’t know the answers to the following questions:

  • What percentage has any interest in voting in American elections?
  • What percentage want to vote but don’t know how?
  • What percentage has tried to vote but was thwarted by obstacles?

There are a multitude of factors that might be involved in producing this lower rate of participation, but however you slice it, a 4 percent overall turnout rate is low compared to the voting rates estimated for other populations, including active duty military whose participation rate was 21 percent in 2014.3However, knowing this baseline, we can assess the effectiveness of future efforts and seek answers to these outstanding questions. While FVAP’s goal is not to directly increase the number of people voting, it is working to ensure that people are aware of their right to vote and are able to participate if they choose to.

What We Do Know About Registered Overseas Voters
While there is no typical member of this unique cohort of registered overseas voters, the average age is 49; two-thirds are working; and they are highly educated, with nearly half holding a graduate or professional degree and another third holding a bachelor’s degree. They last lived in the U.S. an average of 13.6 years ago, and nearly half (43 percent) are dual citizens.

International Mail Challenges
Now that we have access to at least a small contingency of these voters, and data from them, we can conduct additional analyses to investigate some of the unique barriers this understudied population still face. One such barrier is the amount of time it takes for election materials to travel between an election office and a voter living overseas. The quality of a foreign country’s postal system can dramatically affect the time it takes for a ballot to be transmitted and returned. While we have always recognized that international mailing systems, particularly those in developing countries, present challenges for overseas voters, we can now begin to quantify the impact.4

  • Overseas citizens in countries with the most reliable postal systems are 65 percent more likely to have a vote recorded.
  • In 2014, an estimated 17,000 ballots from U.S. citizens living overseas were not recorded as a result of foreign postal obstacles.
  • Without any foreign postal obstacles, there would have been an estimated 15 percent more ballots recorded from developed countries and approximately 37 percent more ballots recorded from developing countries in 2014.5

Overseas Social Connectivity
Voting behavior is influenced by one’s social environment. Previous FVAP research has shown that
social connections are particularly important in helping military members overcome the unique challenges of voting from overseas,6 but does the same hold true for overseas citizens?

While domestic voting research indicates that having more social connections (friends and family) is associated with a greater likelihood of voting in-person on Election Day,7 FVAP’s research revealed that for overseas citizens it’s the quality—not quantity—of social connections that increases voting success.8

Though the total number of overseas Americans one knows is unrelated to voting propensity, the characteristics of one’s connections influence the likelihood of successful absentee voting. Overseas citizens who know other Americans in their country of residence who successfully voted are themselves more likely to vote.

Applying Data to Policy
While certain federal statutes such as UOCAVA provide protections for voter eligibility in federal elections, these elections are administered entirely at the state and local levels. A key component that determines citizens’ voting eligibility is whether they meet the residency requirements of the state in which they are seeking to vote. Under UOCAVA, citizens living outside the United States are eligible to vote in elections for federal offices in the last jurisdiction they resided prior to leaving the U.S.

However, what happens if a citizen has never lived in the U.S.? Since voter registration is linked to a place of residence and these citizens have never resided in the U.S., how are they able to participate in the electoral process and should they?

FVAP refers to members of this group as “never resided” voters. Based on data from surveys of election officials and overseas citizens, FVAP estimates there were approximately 11,590 registered “never resided” voters in 2016. While this number seems relatively low, we know from the OCPA study there are 3.1 million overseas citizens currently under the age of 18. As such, the number of “never resided” voters will only increase as they reach voting age.

These citizens are required to submit a tax form to the IRS each year and 18-year-old males must register for the selective service. Throughout the 2016 election cycle, FVAP continued to hear concerns from this small, but outspoken group. Eighteen states and territories currently do not provide voting rights for these “never resided” citizens. FVAP researched this issue and prepared a policy brief to educate the states on the impact that “never resided” laws and rules have on this unique group of citizens.

The issue of residency is ultimately left to the states, but the lack of consistency among them puts FVAP in a difficult position to translate the varying states’ rules and laws. Through a greater understanding of the various complexities “never resided” voters face—and to what extent current state law covers them—we can better serve voters, election officials, and stakeholders throughout the election process.

1 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2016). Overseas Citizen Population Analysis Volume 1: Participation and Voting Rates Estimation Prototype. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/FVAPOCPA_201609_final.pdf.
2 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2016). Overseas Citizen Population Analysis Volume 1: Participation and Voting Rates Estimation Prototype. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/FVAPOCPA_201609_final.pdf.
3 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2015). 2014 Post- Election Report to Congress. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/FVAP2014ReporttoCongress_20150724_final.pdf.
4 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2016). International Mailing Systems and Voting by Overseas Citizens. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/ResearchNoteInternationalMail_20161128_final.pdf.
5 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2016). International Mailing Systems and Voting by Overseas Citizens. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/ResearchNoteInternationalMail_20161128_final.pdf.
6 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2014). The Effects of Spouses on Voting in the Active Duty Military Population. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/2015_FVAP_ResearchNote4_20160105_final.pdf.
7 McClurg, S. D. (2003). Social networks and political participation: The role of social interaction in explaining political participation. Political Research Quarterly, 56(4): 448–65.
8 Federal Voting Assistance Program. (2016). Overseas Social Connectivity and Voting in the 2014 General Election. Retrieved from https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/SocialConnectivityResearchNote_20161025.pdf.

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