Voting Abroad: Lessons and Takeaways from Italy 2022

The Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) traveled to Italy in December 2022 to gain a better understanding of the challenges that Americans living overseas face when voting from abroad.

The first day of meetings in Venice kicked off with Denise Tecchio from American Corners based in Trieste, Italy. American Corners, or American Spaces, are supported by the U.S. Department of State and provide cultural programs and events for foreign citizens. In addition to providing English language classes, a maker space for doing crafts and DIY projects and a ukulele club to sing English songs, Ms. Tecchio’s group assists American citizens with information on elections and voting. American Corners in Triste coordinates with the U.S. Embassy in Milan to help voters send their ballots by diplomatic post. The OVI group had a good conversation with Ms. Tecchio about the barriers to voting in primaries, which is not just a problem faced by overseas citizens, but a nationwide turnout problem.

Upon arrival in Florence the following day, the group traveled to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, containing the headstones of 4,392 Americans who died defending freedom during World War II in Italy. The group heard from an American citizen who is the superintendent of the facility, which is owned by the U.S. government, about the history of the war effort in Italy. Election Assistance Commission Chair Thomas Hicks and Commissioner Donald Palmer, recently retired Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos and Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) Director Scott Wiedmann laid wreaths at the memorial.

The next day’s meetings began with information on FVAP’s Ambassador program. Developed over the last several years, the program engages expatriate Americans living in a country to act as liaisons to help U.S. citizens vote. Ambassadors are currently located in Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. Italy’s FVAP Ambassador, Sean Greene, told the group that the most common question he gets are about a voter’s residency and which address to use when voting. He also received many practical questions, like how to provide the embassy a ballot to include in the diplomatic pouch, how to fold an FVAP-provided DYI envelope and whom to contact with questions. Mr. Greene noted that during the pandemic it was more difficult to engage voters, but he was able to engage overseas citizens online through social media and Zoom Q&A sessions facilitated by the embassy and consulates. Going forward, Mr. Greene suggested that FVAP could have regional ambassadors who set up virtual office hours and conduct much of their outreach online.

The afternoon session in Florence and morning session in Rome featured discussions with expatriates about the barriers they face in returning ballots from abroad. Of note, these discussions highlighted that Europe has stronger privacy laws than we are accustomed to in the United States, making it difficult to identify and track U.S. citizens living abroad. This can make it hard to reach these citizens to inform them of their right to vote and how to cast a ballot. It can also take a long time for mail to travel from abroad to the United States, and there is sometimes a lack of trust in the local mail system, particularly in Italy.

Another barrier is simply understanding the system. Expatriates don’t always realize that getting a ballot is a multi-step process that requires a citizen to first register to vote and then request a ballot, or that the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) in most states achieves both of these requests. Additionally, depending on their state of residency, voters may have to request a ballot each calendar year. There is also a misunderstanding about “intent to return,” the question that classifies overseas citizens as living permanently overseas or temporarily overseas, which affects the type of ballot voters are eligible to receive in some states. Often, U.S. citizens living abroad aren’t sure whether or not they will return to the U.S. and they have difficulty answering the question. They may also worry about tax implications, both in the U.S. and in their current country of residence, depending on how they answer the question.

The final activity of the group was a highlight for many – a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Rome and a tour of the mail facilities. The Embassy in Rome and other U.S. Overseas Missions (embassies and consulates) provide secure collection boxes for U.S. citizens to return their ballots during federal elections. Ballots are sent to the U.S. via an unclassified diplomatic pouch, through the Diplomatic Post Office (DPO). Diplomatic pouches containing ballots and other unclassified mail are sent first to a sorting facility in Dulles, Virginia, and then put into the U.S. mail stream. This process has important implications for election officials because many states permit ballots from military and overseas voters to be counted if they are received after election day but postmarked beforehand. The issue of how they are postmarked when received at a U.S. embassy and when they are received at the Dulles sorting facility thus may affect whether the ballot is ultimately counted or not.

The ability for overseas citizens to track their ballots through the system is another area of concern for those living abroad. Engaged voters like to be informed of when their ballot arrives in the U.S., is in the hands of election officials and is ultimately counted. Using the DPO system described above, State Department employees and their eligible family members can track their ballots, but expatriates not associated with the State Department don’t have tracking capabilities.

The conversations and many lessons learned from the trip to Italy will help inform the work of the OVI in the coming years, with a particular focus on understanding the unique barriers of private, non-military citizens living overseas.

Overseas Citizen Voter Outreach and Strategies for Improvement

Colorado Representative Jeni James-Arndt headshot

While abroad, overseas citizen voters often face significant challenges as they attempt to cast their ballot, including gaining access to timely and accurate election information. Exacerbating this challenge is the difficulty election officials face when seeking to engage with these individuals. Prior to representing Colorado’s 53rd District, Rep. Jeni James Arndt learned first-hand the difficulties of voting abroad. Arndt first registered as a UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) voter in 1990 while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco and later as a postdoctoral student in Denmark. From 2006 – 2008, she worked as an education specialist for the American International School of Mozambique.

Although Arndt was able to successfully cast her ballot abroad, her experiences as an overseas citizen are reflective of the unique challenges long faced by UOCAVA voters. At the forefront of these challenges is voters’ access to timely and accurate election-related information. While abroad, voters have many sources to turn to for this information. However, knowing what these sources are and where to direct questions can present a significant barrier.

As an overseas voter, Arndt was not impervious to this obstacle. While residing in Maputo, Mozambique, the Representative was largely reliant on local election officials and U.S. Embassy staff to receive timely election-related information. Unfortunately, she was never the audience for such outreach. Arndt recalled experiencing more difficulty when attempting to cast her ballot and less confidence in its successful transmission compared to previous voting experiences.

In contrast, the Representative’s voting experience while serving in the Peace Corps was quite different. Throughout her two years of service in Morocco, Arndt frequently received timely election information from her local Peace Corps office. Through this office, she also was able to return her ballot to local election officials. According to Arndt, this outreach, coupled with the simplicity of returning her ballot, greatly facilitated her ability to vote.

Voter Outreach During the 2020 General Election

Although voter outreach efforts conducted by both local election officials and embassies have improved significantly in recent years, Arndt’s experiences still reflect that of many overseas citizens today. While some report having frequent contact with local election officials and embassy staff, others recall having little, if any. The voting experiences of three overseas citizens this fall – Liz Renzagila, Lendee Sanchez and Hannah Touchton – best demonstrate this variation.

According to Liz Renzagila, an American citizen living in Belgium, the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program acted as the primary means through which she received election-related information this fall. Outreach from her local election officials was limited to receiving confirmation of her voter registration and notification that her completed ballot had been received.

In contrast, the primary source of election-related information for Lendee Sanchez, a U.S. citizen living in Germany, was through Democrats Abroad. Sanchez’s contact with her local election officials and the nearest U.S. Embassy was minimal. She recalled receiving instructions from these officials regarding how to return her completed ballot. However, their communication did not extend beyond this interaction.

After submitting both her absentee ballot application and Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), Hannah Touchton frequently received election information from the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia. According to Touchton, this outreach started in September and included Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) resources pertaining to absentee ballot request, transmittal and return. The Embassy also notified her of FVAP’s virtual voting assistance via Zoom. During these virtual meetings, voting ambassadors were available to answer her questions regarding the absentee voting process and inquiries about FPCA and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) forms. While abroad, Touchton’s attempts to contact her local election officials were largely unsuccessful.

Strategies for Improvement

Given that U.S. elections are administered at the state and local level, variation in election officials’ outreach and communication with overseas voters is an inevitable facet of elections. Voter registration deadlines, methods of ballot return and timelines for the return of these ballots vary significantly by state. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with voters. There are, however, practical steps that local election officials can take to enhance communication with their UOCAVA voters.

Solicit additional contact information from UOCAVA voters

Regardless of the jurisdiction, the ability of local election officials to conduct outreach to overseas citizens often is constrained by the availability of complete and up-to-date voter contact information. One way election officials can improve voter outreach is through utilizing voters’ physical addresses on record to solicit additional contact information. For example, election officials can use “mailers” to solicit additional contact information so that further outreach can be conducted via email and phone. In recent years, election officials in Colorado have been able to bolster their outreach efforts through such methods.

Ensure UOCAVA voting information on front-facing websites is clear, comprehensive and user-friendly

Despite best efforts, insufficient contact information may render local election officials unable to reach overseas citizens. In these instances, providing readily accessible voting information and resources on front-facing websites may present the best opportunity for local officials to engage with their overseas citizens. FVAP’s recent research note (Assessing State UOCAVA Web Pages)and The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative 2016 Report (Overseas Voting: Strategies for Engaging Every Voter) are useful tools for election officials wishing to enhance UOCAVA voting information on their websites.

Establish Partnerships with Organizations Serving Overseas Voters

Although collaboration with FVAP is vital to ensuring overseas voters receive timely and accurate election information, significant opportunity exists for election officials to collaborate with organizations serving overseas voters. Due to their strong ties with expatriate communities, these organizations can act as valuable intermediaries between voters and election officials. Through this collaboration, relevant FVAP resources can be shared and contact information exchanged between voters and election officials so that reliable channels of communication are established.

The Overseas Voting Initiative would like to thank the voters whose stories served as the foundation for this blog. These individuals include Rep. Jeni James Arndt, Morgan Floyd, Liz Renzagila, Maggie Dickman, Hannah Touchton, Alyssa Ayse Jahnigen and Lendee Sanchez.