Getting Out the Vote Overseas

The new advertising campaign for the Federal Voting Assistance Program makes clear its mission for military and civilian voters living overseas: “Americans make small votes every day and we want to make sure that you get your most important vote home.”

The program, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, is using that campaign—in addition to an active social media presence and other efforts—to spread the word about the resources it is providing for citizens living overseas, according to Scott Wiedmann, the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s director of communications.

Wiedmann said more than 4.3 million U.S. citizens live, study or work overseas. That includes 1.3 million members of the uniformed services and Merchant Marines, and more than 700,000 eligible family members. 

The DOD has partnered with The Council of State Governments in a four-year agreement to improve the U.S. military and overseas voting process.

“The initiative’s aim,” said Kamanzi Kalisa, “is to build state policymakers’ awareness of voting challenges currently facing U.S. voters overseas.”
Kalisa, director of CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative, organized an October eCademy session featuring Wiedmann and Mark Raugust, senior voting action officer for the Office of Overseas U.S. Citizens Services at the U.S. State Department, as part of an effort to achieve that goal.

Wiedmann said the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 governs much of the effort to allow voters living overseas to cast ballots. It’s been changed several times, most notably in 2009, when policymakers recognized email is available to people around the world and brought the act into the electronic age. That mean states were now required to deliver ballots in an electronic form on citizen request, said Wiedmann.

“It still does take time to move a piece of paper from Iowa to Iraq and back,” said Wiedmann. “The fact that Congress recognized that getting the blank ballot out to those voters through electronic means has been a great advantage to those voters.”

Wiedmann said the complexity of the U.S. election system is a challenge for overseas voters. States run elections, he said, and that means 55 sets of rules, deadlines and the ways the various forms are treated apply depending on the jurisdiction in which the overseas voter would be casting a ballot.
He said with each hurdle presented, a percentage of voters drop out of the process.

“What we want to be sure of is, if a voter decides they want to vote, the reason their vote ultimately may not count is not because of the process, but because they decided they didn’t want to vote,” he said.

The 2012 election offered some good lessons for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, according to Wiedmann. For instance, the department found that marital status is important—those who are married are more likely to vote. Service members who used voting assistance resources were more likely to return their ballot.

“We also found out the military population is more likely to vote than the civilian voting age population with … similar characteristics,” said Wiedmann.
The State Department provides voting assistance to the civilian U.S. population living overseas. Raugust said 7.9 million U.S. citizens live overseas, not including active duty military. In addition, about 283,000 U.S. students study abroad.

The State Department faces several challenges in helping this population in casting their ballots, he said. Those challenges include identifying and communicating with these private citizens; increasing voter interest and awareness before elections; the diversity of state voting rules and requirements; and assisting U.S. citizens with limited language ability.

“We do our best to reach out to all U.S. citizens, not just those who have registered with us, to get them motivated, to take steps proactively to beginning as early as a year out to submit their ballot request and registration so that they’re prepared,” said Raugust.

While the military overseas have a higher voter participation rate, many U.S. citizens living overseas don’t take part. Raugust said it’s hard to measure voter participation rates because of the lack of concrete numbers.

“The primary reports we hear from people is there is a lack of awareness in normal U.S. news and media reports,” he said. “U.S. citizens in foreign countries … most of the broadcast media they are receiving is not about those issues. There are no water cooler conversations, no election signs.
“It’s less visible, few triggers, to get overseas U.S. citizens to be taking those actions,” Raugust said.

Two committees of the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative are working on recommendations for how to improve the process for U.S. citizens living overseas.
“We hope these recommendations will be small in scope, actionable and targeted so that we have the greatest impact on the continuing improvement of the voting process for military and overseas voters,” Wiedmann said.

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