When I raised my virtual hand to volunteer with Vote from Abroad back in March, I was motivated primarily by a desire to give back. Little did I know that in addition to helping millions of Americans living overseas make their ballots count, my volunteer work would also be a tremendous learning experience.
Here are five lessons I’ve learned about voting overseas:
- It can and should be easier. Vote from Abroad streamlines the process of registering to vote and requesting a ballot. But as many of us have come to realize during this extraordinary election year, the rules governing voting vary widely by state. When you live overseas, this highly decentralized, patchwork of voting rules acquires new meaning. In some states — like Illinois where I vote — you must return your ballot by mail. In others, email and/or fax are fine. And that’s not even counting the myriad subtleties you need to master around printing, postage and envelopes.
- Sh&% happens. As with most things in life, even the best laid plans can go awry. All three of the adult members of my household dutifully sent in our ballot requests back in April. But come late September, my ballot arrived by post just as expected, while neither of theirs did. Suddenly, I felt like the poster child for all the Americans overseas who send in their ballot requests, pat themselves on the back and then wonder: Where’s my #$% ballot? Turns out, while I’d gotten confirmation of my ballot request from Cook County back in April, I never checked to see if my husband and son had gotten theirs. Lesson number one: make sure your ballot request is received. (And if you vote in a postal state, always, always be ready to complete a backup ballot if your state ballot is late.)
- Your LEO is your friend. LEO stands for local election official. I remember the first time one of my fellow volunteers told us to put our LEOs on speed dial because they would be our first port of call if something went wrong with our ballot. I remember thinking: Seriously? I have to call someone in the U.S.? By the time I called mine to find out what had happened to my son’s and husband’s ballots, my LEO’s voicemail was full. So I emailed the address listed on our website. Guess what? Someone got back to me. She explained that because my son was only five years old when we last lived in Illinois, she had to verify his address. Once she did that, my son’s ballot arrived one day later via email. My husband’s ballot request either never arrived or got lost back in April, but she advised that he re-request the ballot and send it in again. Done and done. To which I say: thank goodness for LEOs. You truly are my new best friend.
- It’s not too late. What my experience in Illinois showed me is that it’s not too late. And not only in Illinois. It’s mid-October, and there are still loads of states where you can still register to vote and request your ballot right, some of whose deadlines run up to and including election day. In many states, your absentee ballot will be counted as long as it is post-marked by election day. Moreover, states are extending their deadlines all the time, including, most recently, in Pennsylvania.
- Help is on the way. As I said above, voting from abroad isn’t always smooth sailing. LEOs can make mistakes. Which is precisely why we’ve made sure that there are loads of online resources to help you get your ballot across the finish line. We also have volunteers who can field any question you might have (LIVE!) five days a week on our global help desk.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned during the wild ride this election year has been, it’s that when you’re voting overseas, it takes a village. Sometimes a global one.