Becoming an “Absentee Voter” and registering to vote from outside the US is a snap these days. The easiest way to do this is to file a federal “postcard” by going to http://fvap.gov. The “postcard” is a both a registration and absentee ballot request form, and handles both tasks simultaneously.
Generally, you will have to download, print, physically sign and return the form by mail to your state’s electoral officials. But, depending on which state you claim as “home” (eg., California), you just might be able to accomplish both registering and requesting your ballot online.
Determine Your State of Residency
The first step is to identify your state of legal residency. That is essential, as federal elections in the US are held only at the state level. But the state you declare is not an arbitrary decision you may make, but instead would be the last US state that you claimed as “home.” However, sometimes a person has been an expat for so long, he or she owns no property there and has dropped all their stateside connections. In that case, your state of legal residence is still the last one in which you lived before you left. If you are a US citizen who has never lived in the US at all, note that some states will permit you to vote under their auspices. A list of these states and what qualifies a non-resident to vote there is available at https://www.fvap.gov/citizen-voter/reside.
See Voting Residency Guidelines, if you have questions or just want the full scoop.
If, like most expats, you have no hesitations in identifying your state, you can just choose the “Voters Start Here” box and select your state. Slightly more fun is to click Overseas Citizen Voter from the menu across the top. That page has a handy clickable map that lets you easily locate your state, and get right to it.
Generally speaking, you will probably have to download and print the form, physically sign it and mail it, unless you are in a state that permits faxing, emailing or has its form online. California, for instance, permits everything to be done online. Different states have different rules, so it’s important to pay attention to the specific instructions provided by your state.
Ease of ‘How To’
If you feel nervous about the registration process, the FVAP.gov site home page opens with an invitation to check out the “Assistant” which will walk you through the process. For the very nervous, FVAP offers a series of training videos!
Completing the “Postcard”
Once you have selected your state, you’ll be on a page that offers the options available for that state. If, for instance, your state is California, you have three choices. From the bottom moving up, you can download, print and fill out the form manually before mailing it. Or, you can use the FVAP assistant, print, sign and mail it in. Or, the most desireable choice, you can use California’s online forms to complete the entire process and submit online. Picking this option will move you off the FVAP website, but you’ll still find all you need on the new one.
If, on the other hand, your state is, say, Iowa, then because Iowa does not have the online option, your choices are to fill everything out manually or use the FVAP assistant. I recommend the assistant. Afterward, you will need to print, sign and, unless your state permits faxing electoral documents, (snail) mail or Fedex the form to the indicated address. Be sure to allow yourself sufficient time for the mailing process.
Regarding sufficient time, you will notice a really great little chart of important voting related dates. This chart will be specific to your state. Here is California’s.
Obviously, these dates are good for this year only. To stay on top of election dates, deadlines during the absentee voting process, and changes to state law that might impact you as an absentee voter, subscribe to FVAP’s Voting Alerts. Click Email Updates to go to the sign up page. Be sure to use the same name that you use to vote. No nicknames.
Receiving Your Ballot
Those states with online services may offer the option of sending your ballot material to you via email. If that is not available to you, your ballot will arrive by snail mail. They will snail mail it to you to arrive 45 days in advance of the election, assuming the postal service in question has the same time frames they might within the US. It is your responsibility to calculate the time issue – after you get it, do not dawdle in filling it out, because you will have to send it back to your state in time. Mostly, you have three days grace after the election, as long as your ballot has a readable time-stamped postmark.
If you receive your ballot material by email, yay! However, you still have to print it out, sign it and send it back, so again, don’t dawdle. Allow enough time!
NOTE: you will also have to print out an envelope which has special security stuff on it (although if push comes to shove, you could handwrite the address).
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DON’T GET YOUR BALLOT? WHAT TO DO?
If you don’t get your ballot and you are down to 30 days before the election, you can go back to FVAP.gov and download the FWAB (Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot) form and send that to your election official. Here is a link to it: FWAB form. I suggest making a note of this someplace, because I really had to dig to find it.
Returning Your Ballot
With your selections and signature in place, you are ready to return your ballot and make your voice count. There are four possible ways you can get your ballot back to your state election officials.
- If your state allows you to email it, scan it and send it. Write a cover note!
- If your state permits faxing, fax it. Use a cover note!
- If you are running late, but your state doesn’t accept email or fax, betake yourself to Mailboxes Etc. and be prepared to cough up $50 plus. You can UPS it from there.
- Send it snail mail (if you have time).
- Step 1 A – Packing, if your material came by email, PRINT OUT THE SECURITY ENVELOPE. Failing that, print out the address information onto a piece of paper and tape it securely to your envelope. Failing that, write the information on an envelope and hope for the best.
- Step 1B (alternative) – Packing, if your material came by snail mail, use the included security envelope.
- Step 2 A – Sending. Take the sealed package to the Panamanian Post Office and send it off to the US. Be sure to send it certified mail, as that will at least allow you to track it within Panama.
- Step 2 B (alternative 1 – Sending). Alternatively, with the US address in place, take it to the US Embassy in Panama and drop it off. For directions on how to deliver it, see http://panama.usembassy.gov/lm101612.html
- Step 2 C (alternative 2 – Sending). If necessary, you could mail it to the Embassy inside another envelope. Put the envelope with the security stuff on it inside another envelope, and address the outer one to the Embassy. The Embassy will send it on for you and save you the international postage. If you get it to them early enough.
American Embassy Panama
Attn: American Citizens Unit
P.O. Box 0816-02561
Panama, Republic of Panama
Why Can’t I Just Vote at the Embassy?
Because as stated earlier, elections are state level and the Embassy is federal. That’s why. Sorry.
Tax Impact of Voting
It is worth noting that registering and voting in a federal election does not usually impact your taxes, but registering and voting in a state or local election just might. If that could be important to you, check with a tax professional.
One Last Thing
You need to fill out the “postcard” every year! January is the best time. Just mark it on your calendar as an annual to-do. Or if you move, make sure to include a “postcard” on your to-do list.