Sunday, January 31, 2016

Got a MOVE on

With another US federal election approaching, it’s again time for US citizens living overseas to get ready to vote, and that means special procedures. Those procedures are easier than they used to be, but there’s still room for improvement. But, at least the USA allows its overseas citizens to vote—not all countries do.

US citizens living overseas temporarily will probably cast an ordinary absentee ballot, but those overseas permanently have a special programme to help: The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) is an implementation of a 1986 law, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. Special problems were identified with US military personnel serving overseas, specifically, the difficulty in getting voting materials to them and back on time. In 2009, President Obama signed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which was designed to help with this.

My native Illinois has fully implemented the provisions, and call their application “MOVE-FPCA” (“FPCA” stands for “Federal Post Card Application”). In past years, I had to fill out a form, post (or fax) it back to Chicago, and I’d get my ballot materials in the mail. Chicago started using a semi-electronic PDF version of the application (meaning, not all parts would work on a computer, and they’d have to be filled in by hand). I could also email the scanned form back to them.

The next improvement is that they email temporary ballot materials, posting out the printed version as soon as it’s final. This was a big improvement because it meant an overseas voter with email could get a ballot with plenty of extra time to get it back in time. If the voter submitted both versions, they counted only the last version sent in. This is still true. I received my email versions on Friday.

This year, some states—including Illinois—have an online MOVE-FPCA that voters can fill out and file—but they still have to print the form, sign and date it, then post or email (or fax) it back to the election jurisdiction where the voter was last registered to vote  (Chicago in my case). Because it’s only partly online, this version is not really any better than the old interactive PDF version, except, maybe, the form itself is complete (nothing to fill in—just sign, date and post).

Another innovation this year is that Illinois is offering an online semi-voting portal: Voters can mark their ballots online, but they still have to print them out and post them back (faxing and emailing are not permitted, since that would violate the secrecy of the ballot). I haven’t decided if I’ll try that or not: Like the “online” application, it seems like it’s only half done.

Still, the intention is good: To make it easy for US citizens living overseas to vote. Not all countries permit that.

For example, Ireland doesn’t permit emigrants to vote in elections (with a few exceptions). This was particularly evident in their marriage equality referendum: There was a big campaign to get young Irish people to come home to vote.

Other countries place limits on the right to vote. Canadian citizens who have lived overseas for more than five consecutive years cannot vote [SOURCE]. For the United Kingdom, anyone living outside the UK for 15 years or more cannot vote [SOURCE]. In New Zealand, citizens have to have visited the country within the the three years before an election. Permanent residents—who may vote after living in New Zealand for at least 12 months—must visit New Zealand within 12 months of an election.

So, by comparison, the USA—which has no time limit, nor any requirement to visit—treats its citizens very well.

However, there are plenty of people who think that citizens living outside their country should not be able to vote at all. In my opinion, it’s a kind of a chauvinist attitude. If someone is a citizen of a country, then they ought to have a say in who leads it—it’s the birthright of all citizens, and for Americans, it’s guaranteed by the US Constitution.

US citizens living overseas indefinitely/permanently are eligible to vote for US President/Vice President, as well as US Senator and US Representative (including in party primary elections, if any) for the place they were last registered to vote. State and local elections aren’t included, and I don’t have a problem with that: People who live in a town or state have to deal with the consequences of elections, and someone overseas does not. However, US citizens overseas ARE affected by what the federal government does.

It’s also important to note that US citizens living overseas are required to file income tax returns, though if they live in a country that has a tax treaty with the USA, a large amount of their income—even all of it—is excluded form US taxes. The USA is the only developed country that requires its citizens to pay tax on money earned overseas. “No taxation without representation”, of course, so if some people truly feel that US citizens living overseas shouldn’t be able to vote, then obviously they also feel that we shouldn’t have to file income tax returns or pay any US taxes—otherwise it’d be a betrayal of the very principals on which the USA was founded.

I doubt that any attempt to disenfranchise US citizens living overseas indefinitely/permanently is constitutional. However, I can imagine that some conservatives in Congress might want to try, and the conservatives on the US Supreme Court may agree with them. But, then, I’ve thought that was a possibility for nearly as long as I’ve lived overseas, and it hasn’t happened yet.

For me, this is just about rights as a US citizen, but also about my duties and obligations. As I often say, I’ve had many relatives who served in the US military, and some who were casualties, protecting the rights that so many take for granted. I have a duty and an obligation to them, and to the Constitution, to vote in federal elections, and I’ll continue to do so until they take that right away from me.

Now, the question of HOW I’ll vote is another matter entirely, and a subject for another day. But I will vote—always.

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