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Millions of Americans overseas can vote — but few do. Here's how to vote as an American living abroad.

American voters overseas on the 2024 election
American voters overseas sound off on the 2024 election 01:52

Millions of Americans headed to the polls on Super Tuesday 2024, but there were around 2.8 million Americans living overseas who were also eligible to vote in U.S. elections, according to government data. Historically, only a tiny percentage of these eligible expatriates actually cast ballots.

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which helps U.S. expats vote, only 3.4% of eligible Americans overseas voted in the 2022 midterm elections. Americans living in the U.S. were over 18 times more likely to vote than those living abroad.

Who are U.S. overseas voters?

The FVAP says Americans living abroad are difficult to study, but foreign and domestic data can be compiled to make some estimates about who they are.

The population of overseas U.S. nationals has increased 42% since 2010, and now totals around 5.7 million.

For the 2.8 million who are eligible voters, the right to vote is protected by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, which requires that states allow military service members, their eligible family, and other overseas Americans to vote absentee in federal elections.

The majority of Americans abroad are in Canada and the United Kingdom. Most have moved for spouses, jobs, or extended family.

Many Americans overseas are in the military or are members of a military family. There are about 1.4 million active duty U.S. service members stationed overseas, and about three-quarters of them are eligible to vote.

For overseas eligible voters who did not cast ballots in 2022, the vast majority said it was because they could not complete the voting process, not because they weren't interested in voting.

How to vote as an American overseas

First, a prospective overseas voter needs to establish their voting residence. This is necessary for the voting office to determine which elections a person is eligible for and to send an appropriate ballot. A person's voting residence will be the last address at which they lived in the U.S. before they moved abroad.

There are different ways to vote from abroad offered by each state, but the FVAP says one way that is standard across the entire U.S. is to submit the Federal Post Card Application.

According to the program, for the presidential election in November, it's best to send in the FCPA by August 1. If you use the FCPA, you are guaranteed to be sent your ballot at least 45 days before an election.

It is a good idea for Americans abroad to send in a new FCPA every January or if they have a change of address.

How do the main political parties reach overseas voters?

On Super Tuesday, the U.K. chapter of Democrats Abroad ran several get-out-the-vote events across the country as part of their official primary process for the presidential nomination. The organization is treated by the Democratic National Committee as an official wing of the party, with its own delegate selection and primary process for presidential elections. 

While the primary process should prove a formality for the group's nomination of President Biden this year, the chair of the Democrats Abroad U.K., Kristin Wolfe, says there is a larger prize at stake in registering Americans abroad to vote. 

"We know that in 2020, the overseas votes delivered the election win for President Biden in Georgia and in Arizona, and without that, the election would not have potentially gone the way it did. So we were the margin of victory," Wolfe told CBS News at the group's voting center in London on Super Tuesday. 

Democrats Abroad Look For American Voters In Piccadilly Circus
Abby Taubin of "Vote From Abroad," wearing a U.S. flag face mask, campaigning to sign up U.S. citizens to vote in the upcoming American presidential election, on Sept. 23, 2020 in London, England.  LEON NEAL / Getty Images

Wolfe said that part of the messaging strategy of the Democrats Abroad is to educate voters outside the U.S. on how to cast their ballots in the hope that those votes are counted when it matters in November. 

"We're interested in it because every vote matters. And particularly in this election, democracy is on the line," Wolfe said. 

While the Democratic National Committee has implemented a coordinated effort to register voters abroad, the Republican National Committee has no such organized group in place. 

"It's on our list of things to do and we've talked about it with the [Republican] leadership," Greg Swenson, chair of the U.K. chapter of Republicans Overseas, told CBS News on Super Tuesday

Republicans Overseas is a political action committee that describes itself as a grassroots-led organization seeking "to direct the policy concerns of overseas Americans back to political leaders and Presidential candidates."

The organization has conducted volunteer-led efforts to get out the vote and has worked with the U.S. Embassy in London to assist voters in the U.K., but Swenson says it lacks the financial support for a more disciplined recruitment drive. 

While he's lobbied the RNC to do more to raise voter participation among Americans abroad, Swenson told CBS News that one stumbling block to his efforts is that the national Republican Party may see devoting resources to the cause as more trouble than it's worth. 

"The overseas voters typically vote at, like, single digits in terms of participation," he said, adding that it would be a significant hurdle for the GOP to get the types of numbers from voters abroad needed to swing a crucial swing state in November.

"There might not be the critical mass to move an election, even if you take a super close state like Wisconsin," he said. "The chances of having 40,000 [expat] voters from one state in a particular country … it's a real stretch."

Still, Swenson thinks the GOP is missing an opportunity with one crucial constituency: military families abroad.

"It's the first thing I talk about when I talk to the RNC," he told CBS News. "The military bases are heavily biased towards Republicans, and that's a great source."  

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