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US elections: American voter turnout abroad could soar as ballot demands increase

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Cyclist Mickey McDiarmid votes by dropping her completed ballot into a ballot drop box Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Bellingham, Washington.
Cyclist Mickey McDiarmid votes by dropping her completed ballot into a ballot drop box Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Bellingham, Washington.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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Turnout among overseas voters could be much higher this year as Americans rush to register to vote from abroad, multiple groups helping Americans vote overseas have told Euronews.

From federal ballot downloads to organisations helping Americans abroad, many have noticed that website traffic went up over the past few months with panicked Americans abroad inquiring about getting their ballots earlier in the year.

It fits an overall narrative of high early turnout in the United States, with record numbers showing up in multiple states as Americans cast their ballot ahead of the election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts also say that if as trends suggest, there is higher turnout overseas, it could have an impact on the election.

There are around 4.7 million US citizens living overseas and typically, just a small percentage of the 2.8 million of them who are eligible to vote in elections, actually do so.

A mere 616,477 Americans living overseas, including members of the military, voted in the 2016 presidential election, just 23% of those who were eligible.

But nearly half of those voters cast their ballots in swing states - key states that presidential candidates must win in order to carry the election.

Americans living abroad in 2016 cast nearly 300,000 votes in key battleground states, including 46,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states that Trump won in 2016 that handed him the election.

As of last week, nearly 700,000 ballots had been downloaded on the Federal Voting Assistance Programme website, a spokesperson for the defence department programme that assists voters told Euronews.

But that’s just one way that Americans overseas get their ballots.

Voters can request the forms directly from their states, which run the elections or go through a number of organisations set up to help them.

Traffic up on voting organisation websites

Traffic on the US Vote Foundation website, the largest non-partisan organisation helping Americans vote from overseas, is up 150% this election cycle.

Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, founder and CEO of the US Vote Foundation, said that she noticed there were more Americans requesting ballots earlier than usual and says it might be indicative of US voters trying to be more prepared amid both the pandemic and concern about mail-in voting.

There are some 20 US states that require overseas voters to mail in their ballots.

“We’ve seen major, major activity coming far earlier than we had before. It started for us really big in June and continued in July and then really went up in August again,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat told Euronews, adding that news in the US about postal delays and the debates coordinated with more ballot registrations as well.

Democrats Abroad, the overseas arm of the Democratic Party that helps to register voters as well, said there were already 600,000 people who had used their tool to register and request their ballot for this year.

On their website, they are at 2.7 times the engagement that they had in 2016.

It means that the number of ballots downloaded by citizens abroad is likely already over a million, higher than the 900,000 ballots that were transmitted to overseas and military voters in 2016.

Sarah Elliott, chair of the UK chapter of Republicans Overseas, said the group was stepping up their activity by helping people to register to vote.

"I have to say, I'm having people who have never voted before are asking how to vote this time," she said, explaining that there has been a real uptick.

Many groups hope that Americans will continue voting from overseas and say that a week to even days before there is normally a last-minute push to get ballots back to the states.

Around 30 states even allow Americans to vote via email.

Concerns about the process amid COVID-19

Some say that the trends towards a higher turnout could also be due to fears about the COVID-19 pandemic which has complicated efforts to return overseas ballots.

COVID-19 has at times slowed the international mail cycle.

US embassies in several countries worked to get diplomatic pouches back to the United States so that overseas ballots could be delivered, particularly in countries where the postal service was less reliable.

FedEx has also offered a special €25 priority service for US citizens living in 10 European countries. There are large numbers of US citizens, in particular, living in the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany.

But Dzieduszycka-Suinat, who started the US Vote Foundation fifteen years ago and was the first person to put the voting registration process online, says there are now several programmes in place to help US citizens living abroad which makes the process more simple.

“That process had previously only been on paper. [When voting from overseas,] I’d been given a blurry form and a 500-page instruction book,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

“Voters can have much more success voting from overseas,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

Volunteering to get voters to the polls

Many Americans are also becoming more engaged since the 2016 election, volunteering to help others get out the vote in an effort to make the process simpler and to encourage more voters.

Stacey Kruckel started volunteering in Germany with Democrats Abroad this year and said this election is “the most important election of my lifetime”.

She’s been engaging with voters on the party’s Facebook page and says the social media is inundated with requests.

Kruckel said she hoped the process, with twenty states still requiring hard ballots to be mailed back, could be more streamlined to make it easier for citizens overseas.

Some states require ballots to arrive by election day, for instance, whereas others require them simply to be postmarked by then.

Margaux Guerard, an American citizen who has been living in Paris for three years, reached out to her friends to make sure they were registered to vote.

She ended up volunteering to register many Americans who found the process to be difficult, explaining that many people were overwhelmed by busy lives and did not have the time to do all the steps it requires.

That included first-time voters who had been living overseas for years but never registered to vote.

"I do think that everyone feels super motivated this year to have their voices heard," Guerard said.

Some overseas voters have had difficulty registering due to election websites being blocked overseas due to security concerns and some state election officials too inundated with requests to be helpful.

In the past, countries in Europe that have hundreds of thousands of US citizens still see low turnout.

US voters in the United Kingdom had a 6.4% voting rate, and US voters in France had a 4.9% voting rate. US citizens in Germany, meanwhile, had a much higher voting rate at 13.9%.

Many are hoping this year, with news of more engagement, that could change.

"There's still time," Dzieduszycka-Suinat said, adding later: "we do hope they all vote."