Voting overseas can be a journey of its own

By Anna Milstein

Noe Anderson recently voted in her first U.S. presidential election — from Tokyo. 

The Northwestern University sophomore grew up mostly in Japan, but she is an eligible voter because her father is an American. It hasn’t been easy. She planned to vote in person when the Illinois Democratic primary was held on March 17. That turned out to be the day she hurriedly left Evanston as Northwestern was shifting to online classes

Back in Japan, Anderson had trouble figuring out how to access the Illinois ballot she would mail in for the Nov. 3 general election. With “so little information” available, she had to navigate “so many websites.” 

She re-registered and requested an absentee ballot, thinking her problem was solved but also wondering “would this double register me?” That ballot never came. Finally, on Oct. 19, she filled out a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot and dropped it off at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

Despite misinformation surrounding mail-in and absentee voting—which experts say are the same thing— U.S. citizens living abroad have voted this way for decades. The ability to do so dates to 1976, when Congress passed the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act, and access was expanded a decade later. 

But getting overseas voters to cast ballots remains a challenge for both major political parties. A Federal Voting Assistance Program analysis of the 2016 general election found that 6.9% of approximately 3 million overseas voting-age citizens voted. Japan had the fifth largest population of voting-age Americans in 2016. However, only 4.8% voted in the last presidential election.

As National Chair of Democrats Abroad Japan for 2019-21, John Baumlin is dedicated to increasing turnout. The official Democratic Party arm for overseas Americans, Democrats Abroad helps citizens get registered through its online platform. In a year of social distancing, the group has focused on phone banks and Zoom events, along with webinars that connect people with political leaders. 

“There’s a lot more online activism,” Baumlin said. 

Baumlin moved to Japan in 2012 and sought help from Democrats Abroad after being kept from voting by New Jersey’s voter ID laws. He believes that overseas voters have “experience that a lot of other people don’t.” For example, Americans living in countries with single-payer health care systems tend to be more supportive of Medicare for all in the United States. Climate change is another important issue to Americans in Japan.

In contrast, Republicans Overseas, an organization founded in 2013 and not officially affiliated with the Republican National Committee, is mostly “focused on taxation issues,” according to its communications director, Kym Kettler-Paddock. For example, the group is working to repeal the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a U.S. law requiring foreign banks to identify American clients and report all of their financial information to the federal government. 

Kettler-Paddock, an Illinois voter residing in Hong Kong, was born into a Republican family and then became a Democrat for about 15 years. She voted for former President Barack Obama three times — once for Senate and twice for the White House — before switching back to the Republican party around 2014. 

Along with encouraging overseas Republicans to vote, Kettler-Paddock said, the group amplifies  President Trump’s campaign messages through its Facebook page and mailing list. 

At times, the coronavirus has posed challenges to overseas voting, Kettler-Paddock said. Covid-related restrictions on international airmail slowed the delivery of ballots, she said, and consulate and embassy closures worldwide created another obstacle. 

The U.S. Embassy Tokyo provided a nonpartisan service to forward voting material for citizens. It accepted voter registration documents and ballots and sent them to the U.S. through the diplomatic pouch. This process enabled “greater numbers of voters to meet their deadlines,” the Consular Section wrote in a statement. 

Like Noe Anderson, college student Emma Anderson (no relation) has faced confusion. The New York University Abu Dhabi sophomore is in Tokyo this fall doing online coursework.

She needed to make sure her ballot from New York, where she was registered, would arrive in Japan instead of the United Arab Emirates. She voted absentee from the UAE during New York’s Democratic primary earlier this year. 

The registration process for the Nov. 3 election was “quite chaotic,” Emma Anderson said. She struggled to communicate with the election officials in New York City, so she emailed Democrats Abroad for assistance. The group responded “super quickly” and suggested that she send in a backup ballot, she said.

After weeks of waiting, she received the ballot on Oct. 19. The next day, she mailed a completed ballot for an election that she considers “one of the most significant moments” of her life. 

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