NOT GOOD: 4% Turnout for Overseas Voters

No pretty infographic or careful structuring of the information can hide the tragic fact that even in the last General Election Year of 2012, the OVERSEAS VOTER TURNOUT = 4%. Or, maybe up to 5% in a General Election year. That is (should be) the real headline.

With the millions invested by the states and the FVAP to run the overseas voting program, and with all that has been invested in civic technology by our foundation as well.... That's it? Yes, that is it.

A message from U.S. Vote Foundation's President and CEO

Dear U.S. overseas citizen friends, members of the press, election community colleagues and all other friends of the foundation, including the thousands of local election officials across the U.S.,

Today the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) released their new, very nicely formatted document and graphics with summary results of an overseas citizen survey. I was moved to reflect on the 12 years this foundation has spent doing research and working to improve the services available to U.S. citizens overseas.

The FVAP document tries hard to put some sunny news forward in its claim to be the first representative overseas citizen voter survey. Indeed, it is very helpful to have confirmed population numbers as that is the number one question from the media. But the fact that 57% of registered voter survey respondents confirmed they actually voted is as positive as it gets.

The FVAP document confirms demographic and other information that our foundation already knew from a decade of research and surveying overseas voters. Unfortunately it fails to focus deeply enough on the nonparticipation issue and what can be done about it. The sad reality is that even with the improvements in technology and communications to date, we have not solved the real problems behind the low participation rate of this voting block. Accepting the status quo won't work. We need to expand our thinking on what is holding back participation.

5 Proposed Overseas and Military Voting Reforms

U.S. Vote Foundation and our Overseas Vote initiative suggest the following overseas and military voting reforms:

  1. Automatic Registration for Military Voters when they enter the service: our military members should not have to ask for a ballot every year - their ballots should be provided to them automatically. Forcing them to fill out one more form only stands in the way of them completing the ballot. If they fight for us, they should automatically be allowed to cast a ballot. Allow them an opt out. Get this done.

  2. Allow Permanent Registration for Qualified Overseas Voters: many overseas voters are indefinitely overseas and at a stable address. They should be allowed to have a "permanent" overseas absentee ballot status. They should not be required to register every year, which only assures continual dropoff. So easy to do. Time to get this done.

  3. One Stop - Single Transmission Register + Vote: offer a Single, Uniform, Federal Overseas Voter Registration + Ballot Request + Ballot form for use across all states as of 45 days prior to the election (the day that all states must have ballots for overseas ballots ready). This standard federal level application + ballot can be used in the manner of domestic Same Day Registration. It will eliminate at least 2 form transmissions and greatly simplify the process.  Good news: this form already exists. It is called the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot. All we need is a federal election reform law that requires all states to accept it as a SIMULTANEOUS registration + ballot request + cast ballot. This is the type of process reform that will inspire participation.

  4. State Department to Inform Overseas Citizens - the American Citizens Abroad organization has been working to convince the U.S. State Department to give U.S. citizens who request or update their passports a single page of information regarding their overseas voting rights, as well as to systematically offer them this information when the leave the U.S. through customs control. U.S. Citizens should travel knowing they carry with them their right to vote. Many don't. This simple action would provide the information at critical time it is needed and further support participation.

  5. Uniform Election Dates and Deadlines - the voter registration and ballot request deadlines become more and more granular - see our chart for proof - this is the kind of information and regulation overload that confuses voters. If they even think they've missed a deadline, they do not act. There should be ONE SINGLE SET of federal voting deadlines for federal-level voting for all overseas and military voters across all states. Elimination of variation between states, confusion and questions supports voter participation.

Personally, I hope these suggestions round out the FVAP report and set us forward on a path to improvement. 4% is not good enough. There is so much that can be done to improve this statistic.

Thank you,

Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President & CEO, U.S. Vote Foundation