Why Is Voting Overseas So Difficult?

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Sean Gallup / Getty

An expatriate American citizen casts her ballot at a polling station organized by Democrats Abroad in Berlin, Germany.

Since I turned 18 more than 10 years ago, I have voted in every presidential election. And when I moved from New York to Hong Kong at the end of August, I just assumed that I would have no problem continuing to do so. As I mailed off my absentee ballot request form in early September. I figured the absentee voting process was going to be neat and easy. Then I waited. And waited. And waited.

As mid-October approached with no absentee ballot, or a response of any kind, I became slightly paranoid, so I called the Manhattan Borough Board of Elections. The woman on the other end of the line — who was juggling multiple calls — informed me that while I was a registered voter, they had not yet received my absentee application — and that I should fax another one and mail it as well, just to make sure. I did as told, making it a nightly ritual for a week to call before bedtime to see if they had received my fax. I never got through. (Read about the 7 things that could go wrong on Election Day)

Finally, with less than two weeks to go until the election, somebody answered. She explained to me that they were inundated with absentee applications, that people have been calling repeatedly and — get this — that the fax machine was broken. She told me to fax my application again, but to a different number. I went through the same motions for the third time, this time including a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB), a back-up ballot (which doesn't include candidates for the state level) used by people like me who aren't able to get their absentee ballots in time. I have never felt so angry, helpless and frustrated with the American voting system, and I had certainly never feared that my vote wouldn't end up counting — until now.

"From our standpoint the issue is funding," explains Valerie Vazquez-Rivera, director of communications for the New York City Board of Elections. "If we were properly funded we would have more staff members to work with the increase in voter registration as well as absentee ballots."

As it turns out, I am far from the only American expat feeling frustration. In the 2004 presidential election nearly half of the approximately 6 million American voters living abroad never received their ballots, or received them too late to vote. To make matters more confusing, each state has a different set of requirements for voting overseas.

De Kai, a Hong Kong-based musician who is registered to vote in California, was still waiting for his absentee ballot to arrive in the mail on Oct. 27. "It's really sort of unfathomable that we're still plotting through this medieval paper-based way of voting that is such a nightmare," says Kai. For swing state voters, this waiting game is more agonizing. "I ordered my absentee ballot from Colorado, a swing state, months ago, and never received it," says Kristen Allen, a reporter for The Local, an online daily news website in Berlin, Germany.

Some states — like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Virginia — require another U.S. citizen to sign the ballot as a witness. That was a challenge for Catherine Thompson-Coffe, who lives on a farm in Vendoges, a remote area of France, where there are no other Americans. She called the U.S. Embassy, who sent her a FWAB. "I think it should be easier to vote," says Thompson-Coffe. A debate stirred in Virginia a few days ago when the Fairfax County registrar was not going to count dozens of military ballots that came from overseas because they were missing the address of the witness — which the FWAB doesn't provide space for. Luckily, state Attorney General Bob McDonnell ruled that the state should count the votes even if they don't include the witness' address.

Different problems have cropped up in other states. Los Angeles County, for instance, sent some sample ballots overseas early, before the real ballots were even printed. Mixed in the packet voters received was a line in red print that read, "Some early mailings may not receive Official Ballot Card. If this applies to you, mark choices on Official Sample Ballot pages." Yet Sandy Mansson of Stockholm, Sweden, found it odd. "It was very strange, it was just not what you normally do," says Mansson. Paul Drugan, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Board of Elections, defends the practice. "Our first priority is overseas and military voters, so we send them out first. For this election that was before actual ballots were printed," he says. "Our instructions were clear."

Other countries make it much easier for their citizens to vote from afar. In Sweden, Spain and Ireland, citizens can simply show up at their country's embassy or consulate on election day and vote. "A Swede abroad just goes to their consulate and gets their ballot, it's very simple and there isn't very much red tape to it," says Mansson. Why doesn't the United States do this? "The federal government provides that states administer the elections, and the states have the procedures and legislation in place to carry out election processes," explains Polli Brunelli, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. "Our embassies and consulates are federal facilities, and that's where we provide information material and assistance to absentee voters."

In a 2006 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, the GAO listed three main challenges that remained in providing assistance to overseas voters and military: (1) simplifying and standardizing the time-consuming and multi-step absentee voting process, which includes different requirements and time frames for each state; (2) developing and implementing a secure electronic registration and voting system; and (3) proactively reaching all overseas citizens.

The challenges still exist. While reporting this story, I came across people on every continent but Antarctica who were frustrated. Voter outreach simply doesn't make it to everybody. Some people I spoke with were so confused by the process that they ended up not voting. An electronic voting system is in development, but Brunelli says that it may take "several years" before it can be used. Los Angeles County has a website where absentee voters can trace their ballots. The Federal Voting Overseas Program redesigned their website to ease the process and the Overseas Vote Foundation's website walks voters through the application process. But that's not enough to clear up the confusion.

Brunelli insists that things are moving forward: "Annually we send a legislative initiative package to the states and ask them to pass legislation, and many of the states have enacted that legislation, like ballot transit time of 45 days of more, electronic transmission of ballot materials," she says. "We're seeing more and more uniformity and consistency over the years."

We'll see just how far things have come when the overseas votes are counted, after the election on November 4.