Sophie Weiner, a writer and communications professional who moved to Melbourne from New York with her Australian partner a little over two years ago, said voting from abroad has always been complicated and confusing. The 30-year-old has missed local elections in the past because of changing deadlines and the need to reregister while abroad.
But this time around, she is facing next-level challenges while trying to vote in November’s US presidential election.
Melbourne is still under a hard lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. A curfew is in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and residents are only allowed to leave their homes outside of those hours for food and essential items, medical care, daily exercise, and work. But they can’t go farther than 3 miles, meaning it is legally impossible for Weiner and others to drop off their ballots at the US Consulate there.
Then there are the significant mail delays both internationally and in the US due to the coronavirus pandemic as well as the precarious state of the US Postal Service, which has become a target of attacks by President Donald Trump
With just 42 days until the election, Weiner is worried her vote might not be counted.
“Basically it’s a massive shitshow, and everyone is very anxious,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Weiner’s fear and frustration reflect those of more than 20 registered US voters living in Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Ireland, Jamaica, Poland, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, and the UK who spoke to BuzzFeed News. They are, to varying degrees, concerned their votes may not be counted because of the unprecedented challenges facing them this year as the window of time to send in their ballots narrows. There are just six weeks left until Election Day.
Some 4.8 million Americans live abroad, and 2.9 million of them were eligible to vote as of 2018, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
Also among those voting abroad are US service members who must request an absentee ballot from their local election offices. Military personnel and their families get help from designated officers in each unit who share access to voting resources and keep them apprised of upcoming deadlines.
Expatriate turnout is historically low; only an estimated 7% — some 208,000 people — voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to an FVAP report. But with the race between Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so close, interest in the election is up, and a small number of votes in key swing states could make the difference.
American voters abroad cast their votes mainly through absentee ballots, a process that varies in complexity depending on which US state they are registered.
The most worried voters told BuzzFeed News they believe there is a good chance their ballots won’t make it in time because of the number of obstacles they face, which in many cases includes navigating the complicated, monthslong process of sending physical voting materials through international mail.
That, too, is complicated by the pandemic. The USPS’s website lists 37 countries where mail service has been temporarily suspended for reasons “related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” That could mean trouble for voters registered in states that require ballots to be physically mailed in. Among them are the battleground states of Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Joel Wasserman, a Maryland voter and Kyiv-based English teacher who volunteers at a center to help veterans of the war in eastern Ukraine, plans to send his ballot first class through Ukrposhta, the Ukrainian postal service, at the beginning of October.
“Given how Ukrposhta has gotten better recently and USPS has gotten markedly worse, I’m more confident in the Ukrainian end of the postal process now,” Wasserman said.
In 2018, Wasserman used another method used by expatriates in the past: He sent his ballot via diplomatic pouch. He would give his ballot to the embassy, which would then send it to be counted in Maryland. But an email he received from the US Embassy in Kyiv regarding the 2020 election indicated that if he relied on diplomatic pouch this year, his ballot might not arrive in time.
The email, which he shared with BuzzFeed News, warned US voters that a ballot can take up to eight weeks to reach its destination if sent through the embassy — meaning it’s already too late.
There have been other hiccups at US embassies and consulates.
The embassy in Moscow and consulate in Yekaterinburg, Russia, have posted notices to let voters know that in-person ballot drop-off is not available due to COVID-19, meaning voters will need to rely on the often unreliable Russian postal service for the first leg of their ballot’s trip west.
The embassy in Cuba has also barred voters from dropping off ballots “due to current health risks and country conditions,” a statement posted to its website said. Making matters worse, the embassy in Havana said that all “international mail and courier services are also unavailable from Cuba to the United States.” The embassy said voters should look online for state-specific information on possibilities for voting electronically.
The most optimistic of voters with whom BuzzFeed News spoke said they were more certain their votes would be counted because they are registered to vote in states with a history of mail-in voting, where much of the process can be done online.
Genevieve Jenner, a social media manager who lives with her family in Cornwall, England, and is registered to vote in Washington state, said she considered herself “incredibly fortunate” to be able to essentially fill out her ballot online, print it, sign it, scan it, and email the files.
“It takes away a lot of stress, especially in this election year, with Trump tampering with the post office,” she said.
Mickey and Tetyana Neeley, Coloradans who moved to Denia, Spain, for semiretirement in 2018, said the pandemic has caused serious inconsistency in mail delivery between Spain and the US. Nonetheless, Mickey said, “the [voting] process was flawless for the primary.”
He said they hope the case will be the same for general election voting. They plan to complete their ballots this week and submit them electronically.
Additionally, Colorado has instituted a ballot-tracking system that notifies voters when their ballot is both received and tabulated. That has put the Neeleys at even greater ease.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a USPS spokesperson said, “The United States Postal Service is fully committed to fulfilling our role in the electoral process when public policy makers choose to utilize us as a part of their election system, and to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner.”
The spokesperson added, “Voters covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) should monitor possible service disruptions to foreign countries, including service disruptions due to COVID-19.”
Flabbergasted by so many complications, some overseas voters have formed groups to jointly troubleshoot ballot challenges.
Ali Matalon, a 26-year-old dual US and Jamaican citizen and self-described “policy wonk” living in Kingston, Jamaica, is one of them.
“We’ve started a WhatsApp group of predominantly young Jamaican American citizens who are living in Jamaica or in the Caribbean region so that we can all be supported in the absentee voting process,” she said. “We’re all voting as soon as we receive our ballots.”
In Melbourne, Weiner said, people are also trading tips in the local Democrats Abroad group on Facebook. The latest issue being discussed is how to get the best deals on tracked and guaranteed mail delivery, what many believe to be their best shot at rushing their ballots home.
But such services come at a price and may not be fast enough.
“I’ve seen prices between $33 and $100,” Weiner said. “Even by using a service like FedEx or DHL, the wait times are long. People are definitely freaking out.”
Neither Democrats Abroad nor Republicans Overseas responded to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment.
Some Americans, like Nathaniel Espino, a partner in a Warsaw-based public relations agency who has lived outside the US for 25 years, aren’t taking any chances with their ballots. Instead of taking the mail-in-from-abroad route, he plans to drop his ballot in a local mailbox when he visits the US in late October.
“I’m also budgeting time to go and do early voting in person in case my absentee ballot doesn’t get there in time,” he said.