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World Americans abroad face new challenges ensuring their vote is counted in November

14:26  18 september  2020
14:26  18 september  2020 Source:   cnn.com

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For Americans living abroad, voting in US elections has always required extra patience and planning.

a close up of a toy: I voted stickers sit on a table during a presidential primary election at the Journey Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. - Americans in Wisconsin began casting ballots Tuesday in a controversial presidential primary held despite a state-wide stay-at-home order and concern that the election could expose thousands of voters and poll workers to the coronavirus. Democratic officials had sought to postpone the election but were overruled by the top state court, and the US Supreme Court stepped in to bar an extension of voting by mail that would have allowed more people to cast ballots without going to polling stations. Both courts have conservative majorities. (Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images) © Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images I voted stickers sit on a table during a presidential primary election at the Journey Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. - Americans in Wisconsin began casting ballots Tuesday in a controversial presidential primary held despite a state-wide stay-at-home order and concern that the election could expose thousands of voters and poll workers to the coronavirus. Democratic officials had sought to postpone the election but were overruled by the top state court, and the US Supreme Court stepped in to bar an extension of voting by mail that would have allowed more people to cast ballots without going to polling stations. Both courts have conservative majorities. (Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images)

But now as the coronavirus shut downs commercial flights, mail service in some countries and regular operations in many US embassies, many American citizens living overseas face significant new obstacles to voting in November's election.

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US embassies have taken to social media to remind Americans based abroad how to exercise their right to vote, but a few are not allowing voters to drop off their completed ballots at the embassy -- a common practice in the past.

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A State Department official told CNN that "in limited cases, embassies may temporarily pause ballot collection, due to local conditions and to safeguard the health and safety of U.S. citizens."

A notice on the website of the US Embassy in Moscow said currently US citizens are unable to drop off completed ballots at the embassy but can mail them there as long as they arrive by October 2. Other embassies, like Abu Dhabi, are requiring citizens to make an appointment to drop off their ballots.

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US citizens in Cuba face a particularly challenging situation as international mail services have been suspended and the US Embassy in Havana has said it would not accept ballots there.

"Currently, due to COVID-19 restrictions and the Havana airport closure, the U.S. Embassy in Havana is not able to accept ballots from U.S. citizens residing in Cuba," said a statement from the US Embassy in Havana. "There is no reliable means to send the paper ballots to the U.S. at this time."

Patricia Morgovsky, an American living in Havana with Cuban fiancée, said she was hoping to receive her ballot by email and return it by fax. While she said she would have preferred the US Embassy help an American stranded by coronavirus to vote, she said she would figure out what to do.

"I'm angry and feel they should be providing a solution," she told CNN. "But I never really expected them to do so."

Cost concerns

While US citizens that are required to return a physical ballot to the state board of election can still mail or ship their ballot, in many countries doing that is prohibitively expensive.

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Kim Kettler-Paddock, the communications director for Republicans Overseas, said sending a ballot by mail from Hong Kong, where she lives, could take months and shipping it could cost around $100.

In early September, three Democratic senators wrote to the US embassies in Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, France, Japan, Australia, Israel, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Dominican Republic, Philippines, Costa Rica, China, Brazil, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Argentina for information on the steps they are taking to ensure that Americans "can safely vote during the COVID-19 pandemic."

"In every election, postal delivery issues and strict state deadlines mean that ballots from some voters living abroad go uncounted. Obstacles to voting coupled with concerns that their ballots will not count mean that many Americans living overseas will decide not to vote at all," the letter from Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Bob Menendez and Tom Carper said. "We are deeply concerned that delays and confusion resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will make matters worse."

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According to David Beirne, the director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) -- which provides information and resources about voting from abroad to service members and overseas citizens -- there are approximately 5 million Americans based abroad, about 3 million of whom are eligible to vote. There are an additional 172,000 active duty personnel serving overseas, Beirne said.

In the 2016 general election, only about 10% of eligible overseas voters requested ballots, and only an estimated 7% ended up casting ballots, for a total of approximately 208,000 voters, according to a FVAP report.

"It is vital that all Americans be able to cast their votes during the pandemic. Many Americans are serving our country overseas and their voices must be heard in the democracy they are working hard to serve," they wrote.

"Everyone is very nervous and apprehensive about making sure their ballots get back. I think it raises the level of stress. Voting from abroad requires forms that you fill in, et cetera, and sometimes it can feel like a natural blockade," said Julia Bryan, the global chair of Democrats Abroad, who told CNN that the organization has "definitely had a lot of challenges" this year.

"In the past, I would say, our number one thing was to help people request their ballot. And then we would, we would start following up and saying, 'Hey, you need to send your ballot back.' But now we're really having to take it all the way not only to requesting and sending ballots back, but also making sure those ballots are counted," she said.

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Ballots must be sent by Saturday

In order to vote from abroad, US citizens must first make sure they are registered in their home states and then they can request an absentee ballot from FVAP. States are required to send the ballot, which can be emailed, 45 days before the election. That 45-day mark is Saturday.

Beirne said FVAP recommends voters overseas refer to the "recommended last mailing dates" before sending back their ballots, and they "should start this process early so that they are not rushed or miss state deadlines." He said they "have received no concerns from voters over the security of their ballots."

However, Bryan of Democrats Abroad said that "people are very much concerned" about their votes being counted.

She said her organization is encouraging overseas voters who have to return their ballots by postal mail to send back a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot -- a backup ballot used in case the official ballot does not arrive in time.

"That's really different from past years. Usually you wait for the FWAB until the last two weeks in October when people have not yet received their ballots and there's something wrong and we say go ahead and send an FWAB," she said. "We're starting way earlier than that because we know the postal mail systems can be really slow."

According to FVAP, voters whose official absentee ballot arrives after they send their Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot can "fill out and send in the official ballot too. Only one will be counted."

Kettler-Paddock of Republicans Overseas told CNN "what we are recommending this year is everyone request their ballot to get their ballot electronically."

"You cannot use an electronic signature on it, you must use your own signature. So you have to print it out, sign it and scan it or photograph it to return it or to mail it back," she said.

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