What It's Really Like To Try To Vote While Living Abroad

Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images.
The text read: “Well, that’s a shit result.”

A wave of comprehension flooded my brain, only pausing to crest mountains of disbelief. Was it feasible that my friend was talking about a football (soccer) match? Or a Tinder date gone awry? Was there somehow actual shit involved? Surely it’s not a vote for Brexit! It can’t be.

I scrambled to the computer, my eyes still too entrenched in sleep to tackle the tiny text of a phone screen, and the internet confirmed my fears: We were out of the European Union.

As a dual citizen living in London, I had always planned on voting in the U.S. elections. I even bookmarked the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s (FVAP) website. But I hadn’t done any further research, wanting to address U.K. voter registration first so I could cast a referendum vote. It had seemed like I had ages before I would need to register as an absentee overseas voter for the U.S. election.

But in the wake of Brexit — after a glum day of chorusing “I can’t believe it!” and staring huffily out the window alongside my coworkers — the numbing shock was converted to action, thanks to a targeted Facebook ad from FVAP, urging me to cast my ballot this November.
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When it comes to voting from abroad, the hardest part of the entire process might be the wait.

Despite feeling more than a little unnerved that Facebook and its algorithms could predict my thoughts and fears at this very moment, I clicked through, and in several minutes had completed the form, feeling slightly more empowered than I had moments before.

I figured this was my chance to make a difference in another crucial voting event this year, even if my vote to stay in the E.U. hadn’t had the desired effect. As a staunch member of the “remain” camp, I had voted. But many other young people didn’t go to the polls because they assumed the “leave” campaign would never succeed. Right after the result, Twitter users came out in droves to call out those who had laughed off Donald Trump’s presidential bid. The gist was this: The once-unthinkable option can happen in the U.S., just like it did in the U.K.
Photo courtesy of Meredith Olson.
Meredith Olson, a dual American-British citizen living in London.
Millions of expats like me could play a role in the outcome of the upcoming election back home. The United Kingdom boasts the most U.S. expats outside of North America, with a conservative estimate of 224,000 resident Americans. While there's no official count released to the public, some estimates have suggested that the total number of American citizens living abroad is between 3 and 6 million.

Expat and absentee voters have gotten more attention since the 2000 election, in which delayed overseas ballots were key to George W. Bush winning the presidency over Al Gore. According to the Overseas Vote Foundation, less than 7% of eligible overseas voters cast a ballot that year.

Luckily, as an American living abroad, I can still have my say in the U.S. elections — and so can you. Here’s how to vote from overseas in five easy steps:

1. Survey the United States’ political landscape, nod solemnly, and whisper to yourself, “This is our Everest!”

2. Click here to select your state, noting the nicely organized and confusion-resistant table of deadlines.

3. Fill out a printable PDF that allows you to register to vote and request an absentee ballot at the same time. Americans love multitasking.

4. Print the PDF and the pre-addressed envelope to mail to your Board of Elections/Town or City Clerk.

5. Mail it. Do a little dance.

Within 45 days of the November elections, you will receive a ballot, usually to your provided physical address, email, or fax number (because that’s still a thing). Requesting your absentee ballot through FVAP must be done every year you wish to vote. Depending on which state you’re voting in and your status abroad (military, definite or indefinite length of stay, etc.), you might receive ballots for primary, local, and national elections, or just the latter.

As I learned, the hardest part of the entire process might be the wait.

After I mailed in my own Connecticut ballot request, I got an email from Jill in the local Town Clerk’s office asking me to confirm my overseas residential status as an absentee voter. I did so and she said my ballot would be mailed in September. I felt content in my efforts.
Photo courtesy of Meredith Olson.
Meredith Olson shows off her patriotism at an Independence Day barbecue.
Then, the news cycle from the States started to get a little out of hand. The seething animosity across the ocean was palpable and it made me resolute in my desire to do my part. I worried that I — or the system — would somehow fail. Human error could mean that I wouldn’t get to cast my vote against bigotry, hate, and the acceptance of asinine ad hominem attacks as the status quo!

Feeling self-consciously neurotic, but also imbued with a noble civic purpose that Jill would surely understand, I emailed her back to confirm that she had my address and that all my bases were covered for getting a ballot.

After 22 days, I still hadn't received a response. Remembering that there was a New London, CT, I envisioned a potentially problematic situation (if you’ve ever endured the DMV or, really, any overworked government office anywhere in the States, you know what I mean). I sent Jill another email that barely concealed my distress.
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As I saw in Brexit, after all, your voice can't be heard if you don’t use it.

Jill replied immediately, easing my worries. A week later, I received another email from the Town Clerk’s office saying the exact same thing Jill originally had. Panic ensued. Did this mean I wasn’t properly registered in the system? Would I ultimately prove useless in the fight against Donald Trump? Would I one day have to tell my children that I had failed to do my civic duty, confessing my sin as we huddle near the communal Trump-branded gladiatorial fire pits with, “We’re making America great again! Win! Win! Win!” blaring over loudspeakers?

Before my Orwellian nightmare could spin totally out of control, Rose replied and confirmed again that my ballot would be sent to my London flat in September.

Phew.

Despite these periods of anxiety, the process was relatively pain-free. I’m still waiting for my ballot to arrive, but I can promise that I’ll make a beeline to the nearest post office to send it back as soon as I’ve filled it out.

As I saw in Brexit, after all, your voice can't be heard if you don’t use it.

Are you an American living abroad? There are a plethora of resources to check whether or not you’re already registered, find out what your state’s voting requirements are, and review the process of absentee voting.

Meredith Olson is a freelance writer who blogs about her experience living in the U.K. at The London Re-Pat. The views expressed are her own.
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