With the US elections right around the corner, and it being one of the most pugnacious in modern history, we thought we’d check in with Beijing’s resident electoral pundit, Ada Shen, and see if she had some advice for Americans abroad that would like to cast their vote, but may not know all the details.
First, as one of the most outspoken and engaged people on American politics in my sphere; I’m curious to know what first got you interested in politics and what keeps you interested?
In 2000, George Bush won Florida by 537 votes, out of 6 million ballots cast. And he led us to war in Iraq essentially on hopped up charges. Whatever one thinks about his presidency and that war, for me it is indisputable that our elections for president are especially far-reaching in their ramifications, for us and everyone else on the planet. I feel like as Americans, as voters in a democracy, it is a right and a responsibility to try to engage and clarify our politics to make them work for us, and not the other way around. Especially as Americans living overseas, our distance and experience abroad gives us, I think, an important perspective.
What are the essential dates or deadlines Americans abroad should be aware of for voting?
Short message: Today. Today is the deadline if you haven’t registered to vote or aren’t sure, it’s still not too late — do it now!
Election Day: Tuesday, November 8 is Election Day this year.
Deadlines to register or request a ballot actually vary by state. Registration deadlines begin to close in early October. If you have registered previously, and you just need to request an absentee ballot, that deadline is usually later — some allow you to request a ballot up to election day. But again, the international mail system is the great bottleneck here, so we advise people to get it done now. Those who got in a ballot request or registered earlier this year are already getting their ballots.
The overseas absentee ballot has to be requested every year with a single federal form that both registers you and requests, called a Federal Post Card Application [FPCA]. That means if a voter didn’t complete and mail in an FPCA since January 2016, then they still need to send it in. We also advise that folks follow up with their Local Election Office [LEO] to make sure they are registered without issue.
All of this information by state is available online via FVAP.gov run by the DOD, VoteFromAbroad.org run by Democrats Abroad (on a non-partisan basis, really!) and OverseasVoteFoundation.org — all provide the same information, and produce the same FPCA form. I think VFA is the easiest to use, but they all do essentially the same thing. All of them require that you print, sign and mail the FPCA. There is no 100% fully automated online way of doing this. So the main bottleneck for voters is getting materials in by the deadline. For receiving ballots, as of this year all states offer an electronic delivery option for receiving your ballot, so I strongly recommend people choose to receive their ballot by email.
It’s because printing and mailing can actually be obstacles in China that in 2008 we started offering voter registration help with volunteers offering printing and mail assistance. We did it in 2008, 2012, and now again this year — we had seven events in three cities this past weekend. VFA also has chat agents standing by to provide assistance to voters.
If you registered before now, then states are required to send you your ballot 45 days before election day — that means last week all these folks received their ballots. Overseas voters also get to use a Federal Write in Absentee Ballot, the FWAB (aren’t these acronyms great?), also known as the back up ballot. If you haven’t received your state ballot by the first week of October, we recommend that you vote your back up ballot and get that in the mail, and then if you get your state ballot, you can vote that too. Your LEO will just count the state ballot if they get it, or the FWAB if they do not. It doesn’t invalidate your vote.
Who is eligible to vote in the upcoming election, and are there any limits or conditions that Americans should be aware of?
If you are 18 years or older by election day and a US citizen, then technically speaking you have the right to vote in US Federal Elections. That is President, Vice President, and House and Senate races.
This right is administered by the state in which you last resided in the US — this is your state for voting purposes, even if you don’t live there any more, even if the house is gone or has new residents.
Your local elections official needs to receive and approve your registration and will send the right ballot for you (either federal only for those abroad indefinitely, or including state races and ballot measures for those abroad temporarily). You will need to provide the last four digits of your SSN or a state ID like a drivers license. Other forms of ID like a passport may also work, it varies by state.
For US citizens born overseas, the voting state is that of their parents, or where their parents last lived.
However, some states this year are beginning to reject ballot requests from US citizens who were born overseas. Even those who have successfully registered before. This is one of the issues that Democrats Abroad is working on along with other overseas American advocacy groups to try to get addressed by Congress.
What would you say is the most common misconception about voting abroad? Any particular challenges?
- “I can’t vote. I don’t have a US address anymore.” False. Regardless of how long you have lived outside the country, you always retain the right to vote in US federal elections. Your legal voting address is the last place you resided prior to departing the US. If you have never lived in the US, many states will allow you to vote using the legal voting address of one of your American parents. Also, depending on state law, it could be that studying or summering in the US is enough to establish residence. Check with you local elections official.
- “I don’t need to register. I did it last time.” False. Voters living abroad need to mail in a ballot request every federal election year. Even ‘permanent absentee’ registration in some states, like in CA where I vote, may require the FPCA form to be sent every election year to register/request an overseas absentee ballot.
- “They don’t even count overseas ballots.” WRONG. Absolutely 100% false. By law, every legitimate absentee ballot cast must be counted before a final vote count can be certified. What happens is that when the number of outstanding ballots (overseas or otherwise) is smaller than the difference between two candidates, the winner gets called on a preliminary basis — sometimes now it is the media doing it, as with CA during the primaries — but ALL outstanding ballots are counted before the election result can be certified. And every election result is certified.
- “My vote won’t make a difference.” WRONG. Just look at recent election results. Florida 2000: George W. Bush won FL and therefore the Presidency by 537 votes. Washington 2004: Christine Gregoire wins Governor by just 133 votes. Minnesota 2008: Al Franken wins Senate race by 312 votes. There are over 6 million eligible voters living overseas, not including the military. The overseas vote can absolutely make a difference.
- “If I vote, the IRS will hassle me.” WRONG. Voting in US federal elections does not affect the determination of tax liability or tax residence. You will not hear from the IRS because you voted in a federal election (i.e. President, Senate, or House of Representatives). Note: Voting in state and local elections can potentially affect state and local tax status. You should seek expert advice before voting in state or local elections.
From your experience, would you say that many expats are engaged in the electoral process while living abroad, or do you find that many see it more as only something they need to do when living back “home”?
This is a really interesting question — I would say that the expat perspective on voting is as varied as expats themselves. Obviously different countries have a different perspective and policy on overseas voting, it’s not all the same. Some are time limited, some don’t allow it at all. Of course the US is one of the few countries to tax citizens globally, so I think the right to vote is important to exercise: we are still paying for wars even if we don’t vote for them. And the well-being of all my friends and family, my community back home is still important to me.
Some people feel like they are no longer in touch with issues back home, and so decline to vote or at least decline to vote on candidates or issues they don’t understand. I can respect that. I just feel like we live in such a connected world now, it’s incumbent on us as those who are lucky enough to have a more global perspective to be active and engage and voice that perspective, and to really test it by listening to what is going on with people back home too.
It’s really trying to square the circle I suppose, but to me that is one of the best things about having lived overseas for the last 18 years — I hope I will be grappling with this, and arguing about politics, and registering voters, all my life.
Many thanks to Ada Shen for taking the time to share this information and her thoughts on voting while abroad. While many of us may not be Americans (myself included), it’s impossible to ignore the American presidential election, and as Ada mentioned above — the results are much more far reaching than to just the citizenry of a single North American nation.
Ada Shen is a member of Democrats Abroad in China, and has been helping voters register here since the first Global Presidential Primary in 2008. When not registering American expats to vote, Ada works in the nonprofit sector on sustainable city development policy. She lives in Beijing with her husband Emmanuel who is French, and who never thought he would hear so much about US politics in his life. You can follow Ada on Facebook.
American expats in China can receive voter help by emailing VotefromAbroadinChina@gmail.com.
Upcoming “Request Your Absentee Ballot” Events in China
@ Boxing Cat Brewery
Saturday and Sunday 12-6PM
82 Fuxing Xi Lu (near Yongfu Lu), Xuhui
Five minute walk from the Shanghai Library
For Directions Only: (021) 6431-2091
Event Contact: Samantha 1376-105-5107
@ The Bridge Cafe, Wudaokou, Haidian
Saturday and Sunday 12-6PM
Building 12-8 Huaqingjiayuan, Wudaokou, Haidian
5 mins from Wudaokou station: head West on Chengfu Lu, then South at intersection, The Bridge is on the right.
For directions only: (010) 8286 7026
Event Contact: Berit 131-6193-9811
@ The Beijing Bookworm, Sanlitun, Chaoyang
Saturday and Sunday 12-6PM
Building 4, South Sanlitun Rd.
From the Sanlitun intersection with Gongtibeilu, walk 200 m south, the Bookworm is the big red building on the left.
For directions only: (010) 6586 9507
Event Contact: Rich 133 1133 1369
@ The Bookworm Chengdu
Saturday and Sunday 12-6PM
Yulie East Road 2-7#, Ren min South Road 28#
From US Consulate: With Renmin Nan Lu on your left, cross it and take a left. Walk past rising bridge. Take immediate right after Sunjoy Hotel. The Bookworm is on the left.
For directions only: (028) 85520177
Event Contact: Matt 132-8125-4687