How Do I Vote in the US Presidential Election if I Am Traveling Overseas on Election Day?

On November 6, 2012, the United States will elect its 45th President.

If you’re a registered voter who does not plan on being present to vote in your district on Election Day, how do you vote? 

The answer depends on your answer to two questions:

– Are you traveling or residing abroad?

– What is your state of legal residence, or the state where you currently live or last resided immediately before leaving the United States?

State officials manage all voting processes, even elections for governance at the federal level, like the President. Every state and territory has different requirements, deadlines and rules for voter registration and early and absentee voting.

If you are traveling abroad: a current resident and registered voter who wants to vote and will be unable to cast a vote in person at your polling place on Election Day…

You can vote early or absentee vote. What’s the difference?

  • Early voting means casting a vote in person at specified polling locations in the voting district during a designated time period before Election Day.
  • Absentee voting means to cast a vote by other means (i.e., not in person) during a designated time period before (and in some states, until and including) Election Day.

For more information on early and absentee voting particular to each state, check the Make Your Vote Count: Absentee and Early Voting section on CanIVote.org, run by the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Are you’re registered to vote? If you want to make sure you’re registered, find your state under the Voter Registration section of  CanIVote.org. Most states allow their residents to check their voting registration status online. Some states allow residents to register to vote online, too. Remember that every state follows their own rules to register its voters including proof of identification required and deadlines to register (some allow registration on Election Day, others don’t).

Speaking of the Internet… I’m going to rant for a bit now. Last night I researched a small sample of the 55 states and territories. (Fifty-five is not a typo: hello District of Columbia, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Guam!) To put it diplomatically, there is a very wide variance in the quality of writing and website design, and availability of materials in languages other than English. You’d think that the Boards of Election and Secretaries of States in each state and territory would work exceedingly hard to make their websites as easy to read and understand as possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. It’s a lot of bureaucracy to sift through. I know some states are broke or close to insolvency and probably can’t afford some good web designers and writers/editors… But I protest! This is important information for the everyday citizen. I am looking at you, Illinois.

The lessons: Register to vote early. Request your absentee ballot early. Research early voting early.

If you reside abroad, either temporarily or indefinitely (e.g., as a student, working professional, or persons in active military service and their families)…

Submit one magical form: the [PDF] Federal Post Card Application (FPCA). The FPCA is for US citizens living overseas and military service people and their families. Regulations say that US citizens living abroad who wish to vote must send in an FPCA every year or every time their residential address abroad changes. Completing the FPCA can both register a voter, if necessary, and request an absentee ballot. The US State Department recommends that American citizens abroad complete and send the FPCA every January to ensure voters receive ballots for all Federal elections for which they are eligible that calendar year.

  1. Fill out an FPCA to request a ballot and/or register to vote. FPCAs can be filled out on the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) or the Overseas Vote Foundation websites, or can be obtained in person from any US embassy or consulate or from overseas US citizen civic or political groups. On the FPCA, tell your state how you would like to receive your blank ballot: by mail, e-mail, fax or internet download.
  2. Receive, fill out and return your ballot promptly to your state’s election board. Depending on your state of legal residence, completed ballots may be returned by mail, US Embassy Pouch/Army Postal Service (AFO/FPO), fax, internet, e-mail or private courier services. Check the Voting Assistance Guide for each state’s regulations and deadlines for ballot return.

The mail, unfortunately, doesn’t always go through. If it’s 30 days before the election (October 6, 2012) and the absentee ballot you requested has not arrived, you can still vote with the [PDF] Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB). The US State Department advises:

Don’t be a passive voter and wait for a ballot that may not reach you in time. If you followed all the right steps but still haven’t received your ballot 30 days before the election, you should complete and submit a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB). Contact the Voting Assistance Officer at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for help, or download the FWAB here [PDF], write in the candidates of your choice, and send it to your local election officials. If your regular absentee ballot arrives later, fill it out and mail it back too. Your FWAB will be counted only if your regular ballot doesn’t reach your local election officials by your state’s ballot receipt deadline. Proper submission of both ballots will not invalidate your vote or result in two votes being cast.

So, why go through this hassle?

Every vote is important. Ask Al Gore. Americans who voted in the 2000 US Presidential election remember going to bed on November 7 thinking they had elected one candidate to the highest office, only to have that decision reversed after a Supreme Court decision on December 12. We again learned the difference between winning the popular vote and votes in the Electoral College, stuff we hadn’t thought about since our high school civics or US history classes.

Every election is important. Remember that there are more elections besides the November general election like state primary elections, special elections, referenda and emergency elections. Some states allow overseas citizens to vote in state and local elections. (Everything else in this post concerns federal-level elections.) These “other” elections – state-level representation, mayoral, aldermanic (e.g., Chicago), judicial positions – arguably have a greater and more direct impact on your local community and on daily life than the Presidential election.

And if I can’t convince you to vote, maybe the tater-tot loving protagonist of the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite can! Vote for Pedro!

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15 thoughts on “How Do I Vote in the US Presidential Election if I Am Traveling Overseas on Election Day?

  1. in your search did you find out how long you have to live in a state before you are allowed to vote? thanks for all the good info!

    • Thank you, Jessica! I love to hear that! November doesn’t seem that close, but it is when you factor all the processing time and time to mail something as important as a ballot back and forth….!

      Looking forward to reading more of your adventures🙂

  2. Thanks, Sarahlynn, this is an excellent summary of the issue, for sure!

    I would recommend that people definitely not just download the PDF Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) or Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) and attempt to complete these documents on their own.

    As you say, the states manage all voting processes. And that includes the information that is required on the form! So do use the online assistant at the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which is THE authority on all things election-related for American citizens abroad. This will ensure that the FPCA and FWAB are completely correct for your voting residence state.

    Because incorrectly completed forms mean you’ll be disenfranchised just as surely as if you didn’t file a form at all!

    The voting assistants at the Union of Overseas Voters have over 40 years experience helping U.S. expats vote. Don’t hesitate to contact us for information and assistance!

    Happy voting!
    Tony Paschall
    Founder & chair
    Union of Overseas Voters
    Paris, France
    http://WeVote.fr
    http://www.facebook.com/UnionOfOverseasVoters

    • Hello, Tony! Thank you for reading and reaching out with some more useful information! I don’t remember the Federal Voting Assistance Program having this cool online assistant, guess they probably turned it on recently… Looks pretty easy to register to vote and request/get/track a ballot!

      GO HERE FOLKS — FVAP online assistant: http://www.fvap.gov/map.html

      Thanks, Tony!!

      • You’re most welcome, Sarahlynn.

        Again, you’ve done a great job here!

        The FVAP is constantly upgrading their services, so there are lots of cool things available on their site. It’s definitely the one-stop shop for voting for uniformed service members and overseas citizens.

        All the best,
        Tony

  3. I recently relocated from California to Nevada and I am having a WHALE of a time just trying to find out how I can vote! Neither Secretary of States offices will give me a clear answer. I have not been in Nevada long enough to get a state-issued drivers license yet Iwill not be in California on November 6th. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Ebony, thanks for reading and sorry to hear of your troubles voting! I am reading a lot about voting requirements changing in certain states and folks complaining (rightly so) of disenfranchisement!

      First I would try calling any local municipality – your town, your county government where you currently reside to see if other forms of ID will suffice, like a renter’s contract or electricity bill with your name and address on it. The regional/local govt’s are likely less swamped than the folk at the state level, and even if you need to visit their office, it will be easier for you. Depending on what you find out, you can work to register yourself in Nevada and make sure you get a paper confirmation of it. Once that’s done, call up the local government where you used to live in CA to tell them to take you off the voter roll.

      If that line doesn’t work well for you or if that sounds like too much hassle – and this is just a guess, not having actually read either state’s voter requirements – you might want to absentee vote in the district in Nevada where you are currently registered since it’s already early October. Deadlines can vary greatly.

      I hope this is helpful, Ebony!

  4. 6 months ago I posted this to assist fellow travelers and expats to vote in this election. It’s been one of my most visited blog posts and I hope it’s helped at least one more person to vote. Today it’s largely up to our compatriots at home to do their duty, too. VOTE.

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