Voting & Representation Information
To learn more about the voting & representation issues facing Americans abroad, see here.
US citizens resident abroad are eligible to vote in all Presidential and Congressional elections. (If you were born abroad to a US citizen parent, and never lived in the US, you may be entitled to vote in the state in which your American parent last lived. Check with the election authorities in that state to determine your status.) It does not matter how long you have been living abroad, whether you ever intend to return to the US, whether you have voted before, or whether you maintain a residence in the US. However, in order to vote you have to be registered. To register to vote you need to use the last residential address where you lived in the United States. This is NOT where you will receive your absentee ballot however this is the address you need to register as a US voter because it determines your voting district. Many states require you to be registered at least a month before election day.
Registering to Vote: The current procedure (and how we got here)
To register to vote, voters can download the Voter Registration and Absentee Ballot Request Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) from www.fvap.gov. If a voter sends a FPCA in too late, the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot can be requested as an emergency measure (the FWAB is also available on the FVAP website.) In some states, the FWAB can also be used as a voter registration form and ballot.
The story of how we evolved to this point is a case study of advocacy in action. The suitability of the current Absentee Ballot Request Form owes much to the willingness of ACA and sister organizations fighting for a just result in this critical area – and winning.
In 2011, the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) issued a revised Federal Post Card Application form (Rev.08-2011), using some wording which had not been cleared with stakeholder groups. In this revised form, US citizens voting from abroad were asked whether they "intend to return" to the US or "do not intend to return" to the US.
Not only was this a difficult – and an often emotional – choice to make; it was not relevant for determining eligibility for voting in federal elections. Under the Uniformed and Overseas Americans Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), Americans living abroad can vote in federal elections via their state of last residence with no time or "intent" limitations.
The question of intent to return can be relevant on the state level, to determine whether you can vote in state and local elections while living abroad. For some states, voting in state elections can also be a factor in determining liability for state taxes.
Overseas American groups, including ACA, protested the revised formulation, and encouraged the use of a previous form which did not contain this objectionable language.
OVF launched its CLOVE initiative (Clear Language for Overseas Voter Enfranchisement). OVF has also written directly to Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
Congresswoman and Americans Abroad Caucus member Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) also wrote a strongly worded letter to Bob Carey as well as to the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta.
Brian Knowlton in The International Herald Tribune also dealt with this subject: "Change to Ballot Request Form Angers U.S. Expats."
Following a series of consultations with stakeholders, the FVAP ultimately settled on a somewhat different formulation to enable overseas Americans to indicate their overseas resident status without having to decide and declare their future residence plans.
Overseas Vote Foundation
The Overseas Vote Foundation Overseas Vote | Home (overseasvotefoundation.org) is an initiative of the US Vote Foundation and together with their Overseas Vote initiative, is dedicated to bringing best-in-class voter services to millions of American voters. They develop and provide online tools to assist US citizens living anywhere in the world to register to vote and request their absentee ballot using their state’s specific voter forms. This includes US citizens living within the US, living abroad or serving in the military. The comprehensive range of services offered by US Vote helps voters navigate today's complicated landscape of US voting regulations.
If you have never lived in the US, you can probably still register to vote.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia extend voting rights to the children of their former residents who have never resided in the US. Unfortunately, thirteen US states do not extend voting rights to citizens who have never lived in the US. For the latest information concerning each state's position on the subject, please refer to the FVAP website (www.fvap.gov). ACA encourages US citizens living abroad to register and vote in the state where they last resided, or in the state in which their parents last resided if permitted by the law of that state.
New Voter ID Requirements
As attention turns to the United States Presidential elections, many overseas voters are wondering what legislative changes are in store and how to ensure they are not disenfranchised as a result of more stringent ID requirements adopted by certain States. This spate of new laws imposing additional documentation requirements and/or limiting voting access has surged forth in the wake of two recent judicial decisions:
Firstly, the Supreme Court in Arizona v. Inter-American Tribal Council (which we covered in a previous ACA News Update) held that while an Arizona voter law requiring proof of citizenship was illegal, States in general do have the right to determine the conditions under which they administer state and local elections. Many States had legislation prepared for immediate enactment in the wake of Arizona.
Secondly, in Shelby County v. Holder, decided in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a substantial component of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act “VRA,” which had for many years opened up voting to millions of blacks in the South. The “pre-clearance” requirement meant that certain state and local governments – principally in the South – had to submit any changes in their voting laws to the Federal Justice Department before it could implement them. This invalidation of the pre-clearance rules in Section 5 of the VRA suggests a return to a plethora of court battles as the Federal government and states jockey for primacy of control over state election law standards.
Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court's Shelby decision, five states moved to adopt voter ID laws. Among them was Texas, which announced it would move ahead with its restrictive voter ID law and new redistricting maps. Both measures were found to be discriminatory by the Justice Department and are the subject of a challenge in Federal court. North Carolina has enacted more restrictive voting laws in the wake of the Shelby decision, imposing new identity document requirements and scaling back early voting possibilities. These measures are also being challenged with a suit filed by the Justice Department, alleging that the restrictions discriminate against North Carolina minority voters.
Given the deeply divided character of our Congress, it is unlikely that agreement will soon be reached on a new formula for determining whether or not a voting requirement does or does not discriminate. Consequently, it is likely that litigation in this field will continue unabated for some time. The majority decision in Shelby denotes a presumption among the High Court Justices that States no longer need judicial oversight in order to ensure that their voting laws do not discriminate. It would therefore appear that challenges to state voter ID laws and the like will become increasingly difficult to maintain in the future.
What should the overseas voter make of this situation, and how can we ensure that our votes are cast, valid, and tabulated? State law regarding typically express distinct documentation requirements for each of three voter types, i.e., first-time voters, in-person voters and absentee voters. Overseas voters are of course absentee voters, and they comprise two sub-categories: those who have previously registered to vote, and first-time overseas voters. A number of states have relaxed documentation requirements for absentee voters who have registered in a previous election.
Many voters will face the same requirements they faced during the 2012 presidential elections, and for them nothing will change in 2016. Others hail from states which have changed or contemplate changing their voting requirements and procedures prior to the next election, so it is imperative that overseas voters review the documentary and administrative requirements which will apply.
To ensure that no surprises spoil the process of registering and ballot casting, overseas voters should consult the website of the Secretary of State for the state in which they plan to vote. Questions not answered on the website can normally be addressed to voting officials in the borough or parish in which they plan to register. A state by state overview (updated for 2014) can be found at: www.longdistancevoter.org/voter_identification
A review of state voting laws which have changed recently indicates that where proof of citizenship or photo ID is required, a copy of the passport placed in the mailing envelope (but separate from the security envelope containing your ballot) is the most commonly adopted solution for overseas voters.
ACA recommends that all overseas citizens keep several copies of their passport available, to facilitate passport replacement in case of loss or theft, and to document citizenship when required by voting laws.
The Brennan Center estimates that nationwide, 13 million Americans lack documentary proof of their citizenship. Overseas voters are not specifically targeted by Voter ID laws, and planning can mitigate the inconveniences they entail. However, overall, the increased compliance burden will no doubt cause some reduction in voter participation levels. Both at home and abroad these laws have effects which are a matter of concern to all who value the integrity of the voting process.
FAQ about Voting from Abroad
Can I vote in elections in the USA while living abroad?
YES. American citizens can vote in federal elections (for members of Congress, for President, and for Vice-President).
I’ve lived abroad a long while – can I still vote?
YES. You can continue to vote for federal offices no matter how long you have lived abroad.
What is the FPCA form?
It is the voter registration and absentee ballot request form, a federal application form which all states must accept. It is no longer in the shape of a post card. In most cases it can be done online.
Why does the FPCA form ask whether I “intend to return”?
To our understanding, the “intent to return” is to your previous state or voting district (not to the United States in general), and it helps the state determine whether to send you only the federal ballot, or also the ballot for state and local offices.
Can there be tax repercussions to voting?
ATTENTION: Voting for candidates for federal offices does not affect your federal or state tax liability. However, some states consider voting in state/local elections as an indication that you remain a resident of the state although abroad, and therefore may be subject to state taxes.
I’m an American citizen, but have never lived in the USA? Can I vote?
PERHAPS. Voting is implemented through the individual states, and there are thus variations in legislation. There is an increasing tendency to permit Americans who have never lived in the US to vote in federal elections (administered by states); this is now possible in 37 of the 50 states. Generally, you are allowed to vote in the state where at least one of your citizen-parents last resided. See: www.fvap.gov/citizen-voter/reside. ACA is in favor of extending voting rights to all US citizens residing abroad.
What if I am a US citizen, but cannot vote?
American Citizens Abroad, Inc. recommends that you write letters to BOTH candidates for federal office in the state in question, pointing out to them that you are a disenfranchised American unable to vote for them. This will increase visibility of the problem.
There are a number of online sites aimed at citizens voting from abroad, listed here.
Americans abroad have no specific representation in Congress. However, you may still be eligible to vote from your last US address, depending on your state.
Americans Abroad Caucus
In early 2007 Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), formed the first bipartisan Americans Abroad Caucus to address the concerns of several million US citizens living outside the United States. The caucus has rapidly grown in membership. ACA congratulates these enterprising members of Congress for this wonderful and most promising initiative.
A caucus is an informal group that brings together members of Congress who want to combine their political muscle to take action on a given issue. While caucuses do not receive funding, staff, or office space, this caucus can provide a valuable forum for overseas Americans to make their voices heard in Washington.
Read more about the Americans Abroad Caucus.
National Taxpayer Advocate
The National Taxpayer Advocate is your voice at the IRS.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is an independent organization within the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Its job is to ensure that every taxpayer is treated fairly and that you know and understand your rights. TAS has been vocal on the issues affecting Ameircan taxpyaer living and working overseas.
TAS Reports to Congress
Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, issued her 2019 Objectives Report to Congress.
Highlighted in Volume Two, the National Taxpayer Advocate reports on the Passport Denial and Revocation Legislation and outlines concerns regarding the IRS’s plans for certifying seriously delinquent tax debts which may lead to taxpayers being deprived of a passport without regard to taxpayer rights.
ACA continues to dialogue with the Taxpayer Advocate Service and their offices on this important issue and others.
The 2017 National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) Report to Congress was recently issued.
The NTA Annual Report also recommends legislative corrections with regard to penalties for international filers and a new publication “The Purple Book,” which is a compilation of NTA’s legislative recommendations, was also included in the 2017 report.
ACA continues to bring issues concerning the overseas American community to the attention of the National Taxpayer Advocate and met with Nina Olson’s team this year.
How to interact with the US Government and your Representatives in Congress
The US State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs working through US Embassies and Consulates around the world is your interface with US Government services when living abroad.
The Bureau sets guidelines and directs the Consulates for handling matters such as passport issuance and renewal, reports of births, deaths and marriages of US citizens, aiding destitute travelers, and issuing visas for foreign visitors to the US. To get an idea of the services offered by the Consulates, see this State Department webpage: travel.state.gov
If you want to contact your Member of Congress you can write to them directly or communicate to them via their individual website page. Find out who represents you using Contacting the Congress or BeBusinessed. To send a message on a Representative's website you need to use your last known residential address (even if you no longer have any ties to that address) in your Representative's district/state.