Overseas voters rely on the US Postal Service to vote. This year they lack confidence that their votes will arrive on time

By: Claudette Soler

Overseas voters are facing challenges to cast their ballots because of the pandemic, mainly as a result of their distrust towards the postal service.

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, there are 2.9 million Americans eligible to vote from abroad but only about 7 percent of them voted in 2016.

“For us, the process is not different because we have to vote by mail anyway,” said Ellen Lebelle, an overseas resident who votes in Pennsylvania. “Since we have to do it for every election the pandemic didn’t change that.”

However, this year the problem was the stress over what was happening to the US Mail Service and fear that they would not receive our absentee ballot in the United States in time for the election, said Lebelle, who has been voting from abroad since the 1980s.

“Back then everything was snail mail you had to wait to receive your ballot, but there was no question about it being delivered,” she said. “It just took time.”

“All of a sudden, we saw the cracks, we saw the problems,” said Kristi Carroll Lorin, an overseas voter living in France. “The problems were already there but because of the pandemic they are exacerbated.”

The Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO) encourages their voters to fill out their Federal Post Card Application in January to prevent any complications.  

“That is my New Year’s resolution,” said Lebelle. “I do it in the first week of the new year, every year.”

One alternative has been using private courier services like DHL or FedEx but those can cost as much as 60 euros from Europe.

“It’s coming at a cost,” said Lorin. “People who can’t afford doing it this way are just sitting there, biting their nails waiting to see if their ballot will get there on time.”

According to AARO President William Jordan, some people wanted to use the diplomatic pouch service offered by US Embassies, which can take up to six weeks to arrive, out of fear of the postal service.

“The diplomatic pouch goes around and collects mail and it goes in bulk to Washington and then goes into the mail service,” said Lebelle. “So, if you were afraid of the mail service to begin with then your back in the mail service.”

One challenge for AARO during the pandemic has been accessing potential voters in person, at events or places where Americans gather and providing guidance and reminders on how to vote.

“It’s like the Girl Scout cookie phenomenon,” said Jordan.  “I don’t tend to think about Girl Scout cookies until I’m shopping at a supermarket and see them there and go over to buy Girl Scout cookies.”

There is no federal regulation in regard to overseas voters. Every state has different rules on how they handle absentee ballots.

According to Vote from Abroad, twenty states require that ballots need to be returned by physical mail, including New York. Seven states require full social security numbers on the ballot request, like Tennessee. Others allow faxed but not emailed ballots, like Florida.

Other states like South Carolina didn’t allow foreign IPs to access information on their website.

“I had to use a VPN to do a lot of this research,” said Jordan, “because a lot of information is not made available to people overseas.”

According to Jordan, Congress continues to ignore requests from overseas voters at a federal level and one of the things that have to happen is that they contemplate overseas Americans as part of voting legislation.

“If we leave it to the states to think about overseas Americans,” said Jordan, “we are very lucky if we get any attention.”

According to Lorin, Americans abroad need to work harder on getting informed and figuring things out on their own. 

“We have to make a concerted effort to find out,” she said. “We can’t just turn on the news, we can’t just read a newspaper to see what is happening.”

She noticed that voters overseas have been moved to vote in this election more than in previous years.

“I did not vote in the most recent elections because of the complications,” said Jordan. “But this year I decided the stakes were too high, I was not going to sit in defense.”

You are still taxed, you are subject to a lot of the same restrictions and regulations, particularly with banking. Americans still rely on services and agencies and if you don’t vote you don’t have a say, he said.

“I don’t want my citizenship as an American overseas,” he said, “to be considered any less important or any less valid than somebody living under territorial confines of the United States of America.”

“You still have roots even when you are far away from home,” said Lorin.

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