Top Tips: Returning your Ballot
It is officially Ballot season! U.S. voters abroad are enthusiastic about voting this year. Vote from Abroad’s website is seeing 2 to 3 times more traffic than it did during the same period in 2016. We’re also getting a lot of questions as deadlines are starting to hit and overseas Americans are receiving their ballots. We are running a Voter Help Desk via Zoom 5 days a week. (Here’s the link.) Many of the voters coming to the voter help sessions are voting for the first time in decades or for the first time. For them — and even experienced U.S. voters living abroad — filling out the ballots and getting them back can be tricky. With over 8,000 jurisdictions administering the elections, there’s a huge variation in ballot formats and requirements between states and even within states.
After a few sessions helping voters and answering their queries at our help desk, here are our top tips for returning your ballot:
- Read the instructions: This might seem obvious but all the information you need should be in the instructions. Remember what your teacher said before taking a test? Read the instructions all the way through to the end. The very end.
- Contact your Local Election Official (LEO): Your LEO administers the election rules in your jurisdiction and is ultimately in charge. If the directions aren’t clear (and they won’t always be), contact them by email or phone. You can see it as a public service — if it’s not clear to you, it’s likely not clear to others. Perhaps they can send out clarifying guidance — or at least make it better for next time. It may be frustrating to reach them given the avalanche of activity but it’s their job. If you don’t get an answer after 2 emails and 1 phone call (make sure the email address/phone number is right), then contact us at email@example.com
- Printing: Many voters are getting their ballots by email for the first time and have to face printing out a document that is sized for American paper. They’re concerned that their ballot will be rejected if they print on non-American paper. But overseas ballots can’t be rejected based on paper size. Just make sure the ballot is legible by using the “fit to print” or “scale to page” function. And if you plan to fax back a printed ballot (more on that below), make sure there are no important words or numbers in the margins. These could get cut off when printed on a state-side fax machine.
- Postage: Many of the envelope templates for the mailing envelope for the ballot include a mark for “USA postage paid”. This can fool people into thinking they don’t need to pay postage. YOU DO NEED TO PAY POSTAGE if you are sending the ballot from a foreign address. That template only works if you submit your ballot by diplomatic pouch, which when it arrives in the US, puts the ballot in the US mail stream. BUT- It’s now too late to use the diplomatic pouch for this election — as they have long lead times.
- Electronic return: 30 states allow some form of electronic ballot return and we highly recommend this given the delays in the postal system. 25 of these states allow email return, but 5 (AK, CA, FL, LA, OK) are fax back only states. Want to use a fax and haven’t seen a fax machine since 1995? You can use the Federal Voter Assistance Program’s email to fax service (https://www.fvap.gov/eo/overview/sending-ballots/fax-email). Don’t delay as that service can get busy & make sure to include the cover sheet. Alternatively, you can always use a free web-based or phone app fax service. Mail and courier are options as well but time is running short for postal mail. Electronic return is the fastest way to send it back.
- Envelopes: These cause a lot of consternation, but unfortunately it really depends on the jurisdiction. Usually your ballot goes inside a secrecy envelope, then there is some form of certificate confirming your identity. This can be on the envelope, wrapped around the ballot or as a separate piece of paper. All these items go inside a mailing envelope. Some require you to use their envelope template, some allow you to cut out the template and paste it on (we generally suggest paste rather than tape) but make sure it is secure. If you vote in New York, here’s a handy envelope folding video. If you vote in Texas, here is an old video from 2014, but it still may be helpful. For other states — contact your LEO with questions!
We hope this helps make the ballot return process a little simpler! If not, join one of our voter help sessions ASAP. Time is running out!