Americans Abroad Wait to See if Ballots They Mailed Will Arrive


Benjamin Cole, a Ph.D. student in Germany, had no problem voting from abroad in 2016 and 2018 for elections in Georgia, where he lived before moving overseas. But this year, concerned about mail delays in the pandemic, he took his completed ballot to the post office in Cologne the same day he received it on Sept. 16.

Over the next weeks he tracked it to New York and then to Georgia, where it stopped at a sorting facility in Macon on Sept. 27. On Sept. 28, 29 and 30 he received notifications that his ballot was in transit to its final destination in Warner Robins, about 20 minutes away. Then nothing.

Mr. Cole worried for weeks about the fate of his ballot. Finally, he checked the state election website and learned that it had been received on Oct. 2. According to the U.S. Postal Service, his ballot is still in transit.

“It’s really, really frustrating to me,” Mr. Cole, who is coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts for his local chapter of Democrats Abroad, said of the obstacles facing voters this year.

Americans living outside the United States have been making plans to vote in the general election since the summer. But amid the coronavirus pandemic and global mail disruptions, their ballots still may not arrive in time to be counted on Nov. 3. And recent Supreme Court decisions mean that late arrivals in some states will not be counted at all.

Of the 7.7 million military service members and other American citizens living overseas, more than 630,000 returned ballots in 2016. Nearly half of those votes were in battleground states, where close races sometimes come down to absentee ballots.

Many overseas Americans say the process is relatively painless, compared with the long lines early voters are facing back home. But for others, voting from abroad this year has meant traveling for hours to drop off their ballots at U.S. embassies, or shelling out for express delivery services like FedEx or DHL.

More than 30 states allow overseas voters to return ballots by fax, online or both, including states like Missouri that amended their rules this year because of the pandemic. But the rest of the states accept ballots only by mail. Postal delays persist overseas, and once a ballot arrives in the United States it can take weeks more to reach its final destination.

Last month, a group of 10 Americans living in seven countries sued election officials in seven mail-only states Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin arguing that having to return their ballots by mail this year effectively deprived them of the right to vote. They requested a court order that the seven states allow overseas voters to return their ballots by email or fax.

State election officials, as well as legal and technology experts and some nonprofit groups that promote voting, argued that the electronic transmission of ballots raised security and privacy concerns, and that changing the rules so close to the election would place an undue burden on election officials and confuse voters. Earlier this year, several federal agencies issued guidance classifying electronic ballot return as high risk.

J. Remy Green, one of the lawyers who brought the case, said electronic voting via the internet or apps should not be conflated with the electronic transmission of ballots, which is more troublesome to hack since it involves individual email accounts and fax transmissions, and that the security risk was outweighed by the benefit to voters overseas. The Defense Department even provides a free email-to-fax service for returning overseas ballots.

George Sorrells, an information technology professional living outside Zurich, and his wife, Julie Sorrells, tracked their ballots to Wisconsin, only to discover that his had arrived but hers had not. When Mr. Sorrells investigated, he realized he had forgotten to sign his wife’s ballot as a witness and she would have to mail a new one from Switzerland.

With the election approaching, they sent the second ballot by FedEx. Mr. Sorrells, who spent almost $80 in total returning their ballots, said it was worth it to ensure they arrived. But he said in some ways he would have felt more secure if there were an email option.

“I paid all that extra money to track the stupid thing,” he said, “and then I still wound up for almost two weeks thinking, ‘OK, did this thing actually make it there or not?’”

Dana Rawls, a Georgia voter who works in communications in Adelaide, Australia, said she had voted from the country without issue since 2006, “but this year has been an absolute nightmare.”

After Georgia’s primary election in June, Ms. Rawls was dismayed to learn that the local election office never received her completed ballot. She was determined her vote would be counted in November.

Like Mr. Cole, Ms. Rawls took her completed ballot to the post office the same day she received it, on Sept. 18, paying about $25 to send it by international registered post. It took until Oct. 20 to reach Los Angeles, from where it needs to travel to Fulton County in Georgia.

“I am still terrified that it won’t make it in time,” she said.

When it seemed as if her original ballot had been lost, Ms. Rawls sent an emergency backup ballot on Oct. 16 via international express. The only message she has found in the tracking system is, “Your package is on its way.”

After paying $70 in postage for the two ballots, Ms. Rawls said, she worried that neither would arrive.

“It’s utter madness and completely exhausting,” she said.

Ms. Rawls, who is Australia co-chairwoman of the Global Black Caucus for Democrats Abroad, said she would vote by email if she could and questioned why the rules for overseas voting vary by state.

“There just needs to be an effort to recognize that we’re in the 21st century,” she said. “Why is there no option for those of us who are out in the world and who still want to vote?”