I am an American abroad that formerly worked on the Hill. I would like to inform my former colleagues of Americans’ enormous difficulty in voting abroad.
For our service members stationed abroad there are simplified procedures and extended deadlines to cast ballots. For the other 4 to 7 million Americans living and working overseas there are tight deadlines and a reliance on foreign postal systems, which discourage many of us from voting.
The process to vote typically begins with mailing your request for a ballot to your local election authority (though some election authorities are now allowing requests to be e-mailed or faxed). Then they will send you a ballot, which you return by voting day. This requires two or three separate mailings, all going through foreign postal systems. In most countries it is extremely unlikely your ballot would ever make it across the ocean in time. There are thousands of Americans living in places like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Haiti and other countries that have non-existent postal systems.
One may use an express courier like FedEx or DHL, but sending a simple letter still costs around $100 from most African and Asian countries, and your local election office will still send your ballot via the U.S. Postal Service, which hands it off to a foreign mail carrier at the border. Just send a postcard from Washington, D.C. to Tashkent, Mabuto or Jakarta and see if it takes three months or less. Then you will understand the frustration of waiting for your ballot to arrive and wondering if it will even make the return trip home.
To improve the system, I suggest that Congress open up the Army Post Office (APO) system, which goes to every U.S. Embassy in the world, for the sole purpose of allowing Americans abroad to request and send in their election ballots. This is the only reliable option to cast one’s vote.
Today, there are thousands of Americans abroad that are doing our nation’s business, and these “unofficial” Americans will not likely vote. They are building bridges in Afghanistan, opening Internet cafes in Vietnam, or furnishing birthing clinics in the Congo. Many countries, including Iraq, East Timor and Afghanistan, have gone to great lengths to ensure their citizens can seamlessly cast a ballot abroad, all with American donor assistance and planning. It is time we do the same for our Americans abroad.
This year, I work at a U.S. Embassy and have access to the APO system, and I will definitely be voting. I am fortunate, but there are thousands of Americans just outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy rebuilding this war-stricken country that have no reasonable or reliable access to mail for the simple purpose of voting. Unless the rules change, a majority will not be able to vote this year.