Born overseas to American parents, but unable to vote

Without official census or State Department figures, a (very) conservative estimate puts the number of voting-age citizens born to American parents outside of the U.S. at 551,483. Due to a slowly closing legal loophole, about 308,830 – 363,978 of these citizens cannot register to vote, since voter registration is linked to place of residence and these citizens have never resided in the U.S.

To add insult to injury, these “non-domicile” citizens have all the responsibilities of citizenship, such as being required to file annual tax returns with the IRS and, for males aged 18, register with the Selective Service. The “no taxation without representation” sentiment on Independence Day rings very hollow to those still disenfranchised and licking stamps to the IRS. 

This is how it works: voting is a citizen’s right, but for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, registering to vote remains a “gift of the states.” According to Clair Whitmer of the non-partisan expatriate advocacy organization Overseas Vote Foundation, "These residency requirements exist to facilitate election administration, not to exclude voters, and they are easily met in most states. That is, they are easily met unless you are an American born and raised overseas."

Thankfully, not all non-domicile citizens are disenfranchised. Twenty two states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws similar to the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act (UMOVA) which allows non-domicile citizens to register to vote at the address which their parents were last registered. The UMOVA is a state law which essentially forces states to comply with existing federal law that has never been enforced. For example, if your parents last lived in New York you could register as a New York voter. But you’re out of luck if your parents are from one of the other twenty eight states, like Virginia or Maryland, that have not passed these laws.

How is it possible to estimate the number of non-domicile and disenfranchised non-domicile citizens of voting age? According to State Department statistics from 2000-2009 there were 503,585 births of non-domicile U.S. citizens. All these children are of course below the voting age. But using that figure and the State Department estimate that 5.25 million U.S. citizens unaffiliated with the government lived overseas in 2011 (other estimates are up to 6.32 million) we can estimate the number of non-domicile citizens currently living overseas. These figures indicate roughly 1 birth for every 10 citizens living abroad per a 10 year period. That rate can then be applied to the number of citizens living overseas between 1940 and 1994. That is how I reached the estimate of 551,483 non-domicile citizens of voting age.

There is little choice than to rely on rough estimates like this until the Department of State Consular Services, if ever, resumes taking a census of citizens abroad.

By another (even more problematic) calculation we can further speculate how many non-domicile citizens are still disenfranchised by being born to parents from states that have not passed laws like the UMOVA. Depending on the base numbers used for this calculation, the ultimate number of disenfranchised non-domicile citizens likely range from 308,830 to 363,978, as previously estimated.

To repeat, these citizens are not disenfranchised because of criminal records, clerical errors or policy decisions. They have simply fallen into the crack between inactive federal governments and quirky state-based electoral law.

So wherever you are this November if you meet someone with a muddled accent who is haunting the bars at election parties or frantically refreshing the exit polls on their office computer, you’ll know that it’s probably because they have nothing better — like voting — to do.

Goodin is a non-domicile citizen, a PhD candidate in U.S. History at the Australian National University and was a Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello