Voting from overseas is usually a fairly easy process. US citizens living abroad request an absentee ballot (by email, fax, or mail, depending on their state of residence), fill it out, and mail it to their county board of elections. But in 2020, the process feels especially fraught. As measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 forced the closure of some international borders, mail disruptions have thrown a wrench into the usually smooth procedure.
Then there’s President Donald Trump, who has voiced skepticism of the validity of the absentee voting process. In August, Trump announced his opposition to more funding for the US Postal Service to help it handle an expected influx of mail-in ballots amid reports of growing delays in mail delivery and the removal of dozens of mailboxes by USPS (which were suspended due to the uproar).
The result has been an erosion of confidence in an election that will lean heavily on mailed ballots: In an August NBC/SurveyMonkey poll, 55 percent of American adults said they were either “not too confident” or “not at all confident” about the fairness of the election.
But many expats have already begun the process of voting, having decided not to allow such hurdles to hinder them from exercising their constitutional right. Per the most recent Overseas Citizen Population Analysis report, 2.9 million eligible American voters live overseas; in 2016, Democrats Abroad called them a “very blue voting bloc.”
For Black Americans living abroad in particular, this election feels crucially important to making their voices heard.
“It is imperative that I vote — my ancestors fought too long and died in the process for me to be able to,” said Kenna Williams, who lives in South Africa but has voting residence in California. “This year’s election is probably the most crucial election I have ever experienced, so I want to make sure I do my part.”
Vox talked to six Americans about their experiences casting ballots from abroad and the potential impact of their vote during an extraordinary time in American history. The interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“I can’t sit this one out”
Miles White, 65, retired university professor, currently lives in Hungary (voting residence: Washington state)
I’m voting as a Washington resident because I went to grad school there. Ironically, I’m from Selma, Alabama, originally, a pivotal place in the history of US voting rights — although as far as I know, my parents never voted, even when it was legal to do it after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. I think they were still afraid. They never even talked to me about whether I should vote or not. That’s how afraid I think they were.
I think I cast my first national vote for Jimmy Carter when he was running for reelection against Ronald Reagan, and I’ve voted in every presidential election since then until I left the country 13 years ago. I haven’t voted since I’ve been overseas, for one reason or the other. But I’ll be honest with you: I think the country is on a path to authoritarian fascism that’s very real and very dangerous under this president. The president of the United States is unfit to serve and needs to be removed from office. That’s really it. I can’t sit this one out!
A friend sent me a link to the Federal Voting Assistance Program website where I could order the ballot so I didn’t have to go looking around for it. I filled out an online form and got an electronic ballot from King County in Washington state for the state and local elections. I was supposed to mark the ballot, print it, and mail it, but I skipped those questions. I have no idea who anybody is in state and local politics anymore. I left the US more than a decade ago, so I only know people at the national level because I still read American newspapers.
I’m waiting for the national ballot but I haven’t gotten it yet, so I’m wondering if they’re going to send it to me in time to get it mailed back. But if I get it in October, I’ll turn it around as quickly as I can.
“Although I am happy to not have to personally experience it, I do have friends still in America”
Stefan Coretti, 32, recent MBA graduate, currently lives in Paris (voting residence: New Jersey)
Watching America from abroad is like watching American Horror Story on FX. With greater video evidence of injustices across America, and now the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, America under Trump could mean the erosion of anything that protects middle- and lower-income citizens and the reversal of rights recently given to marginalized communities.
Although I am happy to not have to personally experience it, I do have friends still in America. And the fact is we are in a global economy and the world is tied together. My hope is to get a Democrat in office so some balance can then be applied to the equation.
I have voted from abroad before, but this year I’m in a different country. The process itself is not confusing, but I believe it should be a lot simpler for those already registered.
I have no concerns that my vote will be on time to be counted, but seeing that I’m not in a swing state, my personal vote may not have a large impact. My major concern is if Trump loses, he may try to make an amendment to give himself more years in office.
“We all need to pull our weight no matter where we are”
Kenna Williams, 43, businesswoman, currently lives in South Africa (voting residence: California)
It is imperative that I vote — my ancestors fought too long and died in the process for me to be able to. My parents were regular election poll workers and I grew up in a household where voting was a priority. This year’s election is probably the most crucial election I have ever experienced, so I want to make sure I do my part. I’ve been voting since I was 18.
The process for overseas voting is quite simple. Here in South Africa, we have had several meetings on Zoom and other virtual conferences to help people receive their absentee ballots. You fill out the forms from FVAP.gov, print them out, and send them to your local election office. After that, you will receive your ballot. The local embassy and consulate here will be mailing ballots back to the states, so it’s a pretty straightforward process. The process is fairly smooth.
I am in the local voting WhatsApp groups, where they have people on hand to help us daily. I feel like the votes will get there on time now that our borders opened up on October 1, although I am more concerned about people in the states not voting. We all need to pull our weight no matter where we are.
“Right now our borders are still closed, so I am hoping everything gets in on time”
Dianne Davidson, 59, nurse, currently lives in Trinidad and Tobago (voting residence: New Jersey)
Although I am not currently living there, I still have ties to the US. I have spent almost half my life living there. I still have my house, some of my family, and close friends there. I keep up with all the news, so I am keeping up with state and local elections, too.
I think it is important to vote in this election, especially seeing the toll the pandemic has had. Many of my friends are in fear of losing their jobs, and those on unemployment are still awaiting payments. It has been stressful watching what’s happening with the riots, Black Lives Matter, and the president’s response to everything. For me, voting is the only way to make my voice heard from thousands of miles away.
I know I must cast an absentee ballot, but this would be my first time doing so. I used FVAP.gov, which was like a one-stop shop; it even had a tutorial that broke down the process. Truthfully, I was hoping I can simply vote at the US Embassy right here in Trinidad, but I found they only help with mailing after the forms are already filled out and signed. Right now our borders are still closed, so I am hoping everything gets in on time.
“It has been difficult to watch America descend into the chaos”
David Macdonald, 46, elected official in local government, currently lives in Scotland (voting residence: Florida)
I have voted in every election since I was eligible to vote. But this election I believe not to be about blue versus red. For me, it is about the very survival of our republic and the values of democracy that many of us hold so dear. Nothing more important is bestowed upon us than our individual right and ability to cast our ballot to determine the future of our country. Rich or poor, educated or not, we all are given this right in equal measure. I cherish it like I’m protecting a candle in the wind.
It has been difficult to watch America descend into the chaos it finds itself in now. As an American abroad, I am passionately proud of my country and want to see leadership that will restore it to its place in the world in tackling the global challenges that face us all — climate change, distribution of wealth, a fair and affordable health care system, the eradication of institutionalized racism, and a sensible solution to gun violence. I believe in America for all of her wonderful potential to be a force for good in this world. We have lost our way and we are down right now, but we are certainly not out. We can come together again and fight together for what is right.
Being abroad one can opt to vote by mail or, in my state, by fax. Voting by fax means you give up your right to a secret ballot. I personally don’t use that option, as I simply do not trust that the ballot would be safe on its journey to be counted. I opt for delivery of my ballot by email. I simply print it out, fill it in, sign it to match my signature that is held [on file], and then send it back to the supervisor of elections in my home state county. The process is a very simple and straightforward one.
I do feel confident that my ballot will be counted. I have complete faith in the integrity of our electoral counting system.
“I literally spent the last three days taking care of this issue to be able to have my vote count in this upcoming presidential election”
Jessy Schuster, 40, producer and TV host, currently lives in Guadeloupe (voting residence: Florida)
I started voting as soon as I could, legally speaking. I registered in 2008 and I have been voting ever since in all elections that I was eligible to vote in.
Although it will sound like a cliché, to me voting is the most democratic process that exists today. So many women, Black people, and Native Americans fought before me to give future generations the right and the opportunity to fill out a ballot and elect our officials and presidents, so I cannot stay home and not participate in this process.
2020 is a crucial year. The list of critical issues and problems in America is growing and our leaders don’t seem close to finding a solution or even pretending to find one. This year has seen so many turning points, from the Black Lives Matter protests and the government’s reaction to it, to police brutality, the environmental crisis, and the response to the Covid-19 crisis. Fake news and lies have become the daily norms and most Americans believe everything they read on social media and hear on the news without any critical thinking, fact-checking, or accountability. It is scary to imagine the future beyond November 3 — regardless of who will win — because America feels divided on every single issue with no sign of a peaceful solution.
That said, the electoral voting system is not ideal in terms of the “every vote counts” mantra that our country is promoting, but right now this is what we have to work with. But voting has been confusing this year because I was under the impression I could send back my filled-out ballot by email or fax, but I have to mail it back. I had to reach out to the election offices several times by phone to get clear directions. It took 10 days for someone to send me back my ballot by email, and I consider myself being an early bird. The election office in my city told me it was only one person who was answering emails. I wish her luck.
My husband will be voting for the first time in this election, and for him it’s a little more complicated because they don’t have his signature on file, which means that his FPCA [Federal Post Card Application] has to be returned by mail to the USA from France, which will take time. Then he will receive a ballot back that has to be sent back again to the US. I wish we could have a “designated” voter, to go in person to represent you at the voting booth, like in French elections. You fill out a form and notarize it, and this person can vote in your name at the booth. I do realize it can be considered risky because of fraud, but several countries do it.
I am not 100 percent confident that my ballot will make it in on time, to be honest. I literally spent the last three days taking care of this issue to be able to have my vote count in this upcoming presidential election. I am mostly worried for my husband’s ballot because the back-and-forth mailing in the time of Covid-19 between the USA and France might not work within the legal time frame allowed.
Tiffanie Drayton is a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @draytontiffanie.
Nikisia Drayton is a writer and counselor