For most Gap Year travelers and study abroad participants this November’s Presidential election will be the first they’ve been eligible to vote in. Becoming a voting member of one’s country of citizenship is a rite of passage and an important step into participation in the adult community.
In spite of the growing disillusionment with the political process, voting remains the most significant way “we the people” have to make our voices heard and have a hand in the direction our country takes, both domestically and within the international community. It’s vital that every adult do their civil duty, become educated about the issues that matter most, the positions of the candidates, and vote their conscience on November 8th.
But what happens if you’re out of the country, either participating in a study abroad program, or on your Gap Year?
You can still vote, and you should make the effort to.
Voting ahead of time, from outside the country, involves voting by absentee ballot. What that means is that you apply, in advance, to have your ballot delivered to you abroad and you send it in by the deadline. The tricky part, of course, is that the deadlines for both applying for your absentee ballot and submitting your vote vary by state.
The Steps to Voting From Abroad
Voting from outside the USA is not difficult, but it does take some pre-planning. You can’t remember on the morning of the election and just stop by your local polling center before work, like you could at home. People who travel and who are living outside the USA have to go the extra mile to exercise their right to vote. It is worth the effort.
Here’s the process for voting from abroad:
- Register to vote
- Request your absentee ballot
- Return your absentee ballot
Register to Vote
The first step is to know whether or not you are registered to vote. You can check your voter registration status online, easily.
If you ARE registered to vote, great! The next thing to do is request your absentee ballot.
If you ARE NOT registered to vote then you need to get registered.
31 states and the District of Colombia allow you to register online. The others require you to register in person (this may be a problem if you are already outside the USA and won’t return before the election.
Keep in mind that there will be a voter registration deadline and they vary by state.
If you need to register to vote, you can do so online, or in person, or by mail. This site will help you know which options your state allows.
Sometimes, you can register to vote AND request your absentee ballot at the same time, with the same form (that’s what I did, for New Hampshire) so you might have a look at the next step and see if you can roll two steps into one in your state.
Check out this 12 step explanation of how to register to vote that covers all of the variables.
How to Request Your Absentee Ballot
When requesting your absentee ballot you’ll find that there are lots of options and support services online. Here are three that are reputable and can help you get your ballot in time to vote:
This is a tried and true federal organization that specializes in helping Service members and Americans living overseas to vote. They have step by step directions, printable forms and all the details you need.
This is a non-partisan site dedicated to helping people vote. They’ve got a very handy Student’s Studying Abroad page with the links you need to get started and information specific to students abroad and voting.
They also provide a printable Study Abroad and Vote Toolkit that is perfect for program providers, teachers, or political organizers to hand out to students to help get them started on the process.
Also non-partisan, Overseas Vote works specifically with Americans living abroad and Service members to facilitate voter registration and absentee voting. This site has all of the necessary forms and links to state by state information, as well as a candidate finder, in case you aren’t sure who is running in your state or district for a particular election.
This is the site I used to print the forms for my own absentee ballot request. For the state of New Hampshire, I was also able to register to vote on the same form. Very handy! Use the drop down menu to determine which sort of voter you are (are you temporarily abroad, or out of the USA longer term?) and follow the step by step prompts until you’re instructed to print your forms. You’ll have a few things left to fill out by hand on the form, but much of it is auto filled based on the information you’ve entered. They even print out the envelope label for you so that there is no chance of an error in mailing!
The next step is to wait for your absentee ballot to arrive. Depending on how you’ve requested to receive it, it might come by postal mail or email. You’ll then need to fill it out, voting for your candidates of choice in your local and federal elections, and mail it in by the deadline.
If your vote does not arrive by the deadline for your state, it may not be counted! Be sure to double check the absentee voting deadlines for your state and mark them on your calendar!
Return Your Absentee Ballot
Maybe it seems obvious, but this is the most important step. Even if you’re registered, even if you get your ballot, even if you fill it out… if you don’t mail it back to the right place at the right time, you haven’t voted!
Don’t forget to MAIL your absentee ballot!
Who Do I Vote For?
Voting is a civic duty and it’s serious business. Part of living in a democratic country is taking part of the responsibility for who is running the show. That’s what we do when we vote. As you begin to take your place as an adult in the community, becoming a thoughtful and informed voter is part of that responsibility. It’s not enough to listen to soundbite political commercials! You must do your homework. Understand the candidates positions on the issues that matter to you, and vote your conscience for the good of the country.
How do you get beyond the noise and learn more about the candidates policies?
Perhaps the most obvious way is to visit the websites of each of the candidates and read for yourself. Follow the debates, and educate yourself on the issues. This is a big job!
If you’re wondering how to compare the candidates, side by side, with what matters to you, there are several online tools to do that.
2016 Candidate Comparison
This site is a wealth of useful information. On the right, as you scroll down you’ll see a comparison of the Democratic and Republican candidates positions on all of the major issues. You can click on a particular candidate and get a detailed description as well as their positions on the issues and links to further information. Even the third party and minority candidates are thoroughly covered. They’ve also got a list of the scheduled debates (right at the top, on the right) so that you can mark your calendar and watch!
This site compares all of the presidential candidates side by side. A handy drop down on the left side allows you to select your position on issues and then match candidates who share your views.
No matter where your research takes you, it’s important to remember the bias of the person or organization writing. Try to find sources that are non-partisan, and read as widely as you can, from a variety of perspectives (even those you might disagree with!) to educate yourself thoroughly on all sides of an issue.
Still not convinced that you should vote? Read on:
Guide to Voting Overseas by Nomadic Matt
Let your voice be heard! Vote!
Photo Credit: Theresa Thompson