Slow post puts US expat votes at risk

The US Presidential Election will take place November 3, 2020. Photo: wuestenigel is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

Americans abroad choosing to vote may not get their ballot counted in this year’s United States election due to the pandemic causing delays in mailing.

The earliest expatriate voters could get ballots sent to them was mid-September, 45 days before the election, depending on the state in which the voter is registered. But there are concerns that some of the expatriate voters registered in one of the 22 US states accepting absentee ballots only through mail, may not get their votes in on time because the US postal service is choked with delays.

Senior research fellow at the United States Studies Centre Jared Mondschein said: “Given the limitations the US Postal Service has been quite open about, it’s all but inevitable that some ballots won’t be counted.”

The other 28 US states are accepting absentee ballots through either fax or email, with North Dakota and Arizona providing online voting for those abroad.

Elections in the US are administered by states, which means each state can choose its own voting procedures.

The US constitution specifically outlines a federal authority can step in and regulate elections if needed. But as it hasn’t done that, voters who are registered in states only accepting absentee ballots by mail, have no choice but to accept postal delays and the possibility of their vote not being counted.

Absentee ballots are posted to US citizens living abroad. Photo: Zlatko Unger is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Americans abroad who chose to vote by mail were also faced with payment for shipping fees.

Mr Mondschein said: “I personally find it ridiculous that Americans are forced to pay sometimes not insignificant sums to mail their ballots from abroad. Americans have fought and died for the right to vote – the least that we, as their descendants, can do is to remove unnecessary barriers to this right.”

US Embassies and Consulates in Australia have the ability to post completed absentee ballots to the United States, as long as the ballot is in a pre-paid envelope. The Australian US Embassy website provides some advice for US citizens abroad wanting to vote and recommended that ballots be posted to the US by October 2.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program estimates 2.9 million Americans are eligible to vote from abroad, although only 136,300 voted in the 2016 US election.

Mr Mondschein said: “I’m of the view that the United States should learn from Australia and make voting as close to compulsory as possible, regardless of whether you are in the country or not.

“Compulsory voting would revolutionise voting abroad and address low voter turnout.”

In the meantime, Republicans Overseas and Democrats Abroad are organisations working to provide American expatriates with the information they need to know about voting during a pandemic.

Republicans Overseas communications director Kym Kettler-Paddock admitted this year had been difficult for people getting their ballots back to the United States.

“This year we’ve had a lot of people wondering how do I get my ballot back?”

Republicans Overseas informed voters about postal delays through their central and individual chapter newsletters, as well as through social media pages, said Mrs Kettler-Paddock.

A US citizen living in Australia is active with the organisation, Democrats Abroad. Photo: @democratsabroadaustralia on Instagram

Australian Chairman for Democrats Abroad Kent Getsinger said overseas votes were important because they could decide the result in close elections.

“We called all our members where postal return was the only option to inform them to vote as soon as possible.

“In a normal time we’d be out in the major capital cities and local tourist spots with our ‘ask an American to vote’ apparel on, handing out cards, hopefully catching US citizens in person or an Australian who may know a US citizen to pass on,” said Mr Getsinger.

Democrats Abroad have instead moved their efforts to calling, putting out adverts, and having meetings and gatherings online within their state chapters.

The US presidential election will take place November 3, 2020.