Oliver Biggar is an American citizen, but at age 22, he has only lived in the United States for a total of six months. Although he holds a U.S. passport and pays U.S. income taxes every year, Biggar has never cast a vote in an American election and currently lives in Australia.
“I don't have immediate plans to move [to the United States], even though it could happen in the future,” Biggar told VICE News. “And it’s sort of like, why should I put in a lot of effort to redeem a place I’m not necessarily connected to?”
Biggar is not alone. For U.S. citizens residing abroad, voting in the U.S. elections can feel far removed from their daily life. Approximately three million American citizens overseas are eligible to vote, but participation is typically low: Only seven percent of eligible overseas voters returned their ballots in the 2016 election, and four percent in 2012. But that’s on track to change this year.
For the 2020 election, U.S. citizens abroad are expected to vote in record numbers, and many are first-time voters like Biggar. Thanks to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, American citizens have the right to vote in federal elections regardless of their country of residence, and 39 states allow citizens overseas to vote absentee even if they have never resided in the United States. VICE News reached out to all 50 states regarding turnout from American voters abroad, and found that activity this year has substantially increased in nearly every state that tracks this data compared to previous elections.
While not every state records overseas ballot requests or submissions, almost all of the ones that do have noted a significant increase in voter interest. Maine, which has a closely followed Senate race, received 5,666 absentee ballot requests as of October 12. In 2016, the state received just 443 requests, marking a 1200 percent increase this year. In Florida, a key swing state, ballot requests increased by 40 percent compared with 2016. As of October 12, Florida had sent out 103,818 ballots to citizens overseas and military personnel. In 2016, the state only mailed 73,670 ballots, and 65,174 in 2012. Not every one of these requested ballots will be returned with a vote cast, but in the last presidential election, Florida also recorded the highest number of returned overseas ballots of any state.
Iowa also saw a 40 percent increase in early voter turnout for overseas citizens. As of October 9, almost 6,000 overseas residents submitted ballots—compared with 3,875 on the same date in 2016. Colorado too has recorded a 50 percent increase in voter registration for overseas citizens in comparison with 2016, and Massachusetts reported a 60 percent increase from 2016. There were 16,946 ballots requested this year as compared to 2016 when there were 10,513 requests, and 2012 when there were 6,225.
“This year, the number of overseas voters is even greater, with many voters contacting us who have never before voted in an American election,” Debra O’Malley, spokeswoman for Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin's office, told VICE News in an email.
While a few states are reporting just a small increase in ballot requests since the 2016 election, like Connecticut (up 8.6 percent) and Maryland (14 percent), these ballot requests add up. Among the 22 states that provided responses, only Montana and West Virginia did not report an increase in ballot requests and registrations from the 2016 election.
Just last month, Biggar registered with Democrats Abroad and Vote From Abroad, and mailed in his voter registration to California. He just received word that his registration was received and hopes to be able to send his ballot back soon, since mail travels slowly from Australia. The magnitude of this election changed his mind. “Nothing’s precedented. I don't know if I would be voting if it wasn’t this election because I was pretty reticent,” Biggar said.
Cam Le, 46, has lived in France for the past five years and is also voting for the first time. Le moved to the United States from Vietnam when she was seven, and although she has never been involved in politics, the turmoil from the past four years pushed Le to send her ballot to Nevada this year. “It was the chaos of the world and how much my parents hate Trump. My parents also voted in Nevada and I don’t think they’ve ever voted before,” Le told VICE News. “My parents never talked about politics.”
For Rafael Heraud, 23, Trump’s effect on the rest of the world swayed his decision to vote for the first time. Heraud was born in Miami, Florida, but his family moved back to France when he was two years old. “I don’t have a lot of roots in the U.S. The last time I was there was 15 years ago. The last election I did not vote because it does not feel like my country,” Heraud said. But after four years of Trump as president, Heraud changed his mind. “This time because I saw that Trump was a complete mess for the world,” he said. “I decided that not only for Americans but for the whole world, it was necessary that I voted.”
American organizations abroad that help citizens vote are also experiencing an uptick in numbers. Visitor traffic to Overseas Vote—an online platform for U.S. citizens and military service members abroad to register, request ballots, and receive voting information—is up 175 percent compared to this time in 2016. “Traffic is highly indicative of interest,” Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote, told VICE News. “And interest is looking very strong. So we are feeling like there may be a real increase in the number of voters abroad.” Of the site’s visitors, 87 percent are new.
Democrats Abroad has received a similar bump. In the lead up to the 2020 election, traffic to the Democrats Abroad website is up by 270 percent from 2016, according to Julia Bryan, global chair of Democrats Abroad.“This is not just an election between two people,” Bryan told VICE News. “This is about democracy and whether or not democracy stands in the United States. That's why it's so crucial for everyone.” With regards to the website traffic, Bryan added, “It’s a really good sign. We think that this means that at least the ballots that are sent out to voters will be doubled in number. So now our job is to get those ballots back.”
Republicans Overseas has also seen an increase in traffic and registration, according to Randy Yaloz, President of Republicans Overseas France. “Young people are really out. I think everyone is motivated. We’ve had a record number of Republicans [requesting ballots] in Greece and Israel,” said Yaloz. “Americans abroad can make a really huge difference. I think we’ll play a role in some very key states.”
Even though the population of overseas citizens is small, these votes could make the difference, especially in swing states. According to Bryan, 48 percent of Democrats who voted in 2016 from overseas voted in battleground states. Although the margins are shifting due to higher turnout everywhere, a greater number of overseas voters could swing those states left since a strong overseas turnout historically favors Democrats. “Americans abroad are very, very blue. We have like 2 percent registered Republicans usually from abroad, 81 percent registered Democrats,” said Bryan. “We are very on track to double the abroad vote, at least in terms of ballots getting back. If we do, we will more than cover a lot of the margins, from those states.”
Sebastien Marque, 23, is one of those swing state voters. Born and raised in Paris, France, Marque’s mother is from Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is one of the most important states in the 2020 election, and while Marque was old enough to vote in the 2016 and 2018 elections in Pennsylvania, he did not. But this year, the stakes felt too high not to put in the effort. “It was a no brainer. I feel really bad about not voting in the last election,” said Marque. “I’ve been voting in France for the last two elections, so it feels good to actually vote in the American one.”
Despite the interest, voters abroad have already faced many challenges. States have different rules for returning absentee and overseas ballots; while some require a physical ballot mailed in, others permit fax and email deliveries. Normally, citizens overseas can also drop off ballots at their U.S. embassy, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made this more challenging. Last month, a State Department official told CNN that “in limited cases, embassies may temporarily pause ballot collection, due to local conditions and to safeguard the health and safety of U.S. citizens.”
Ultimately, Biggar decided to vote because as a U.S. citizen, he is one of the few in the world who can. “There are so many people around the world who wish that they could vote in this election because they want to see things change from Trump’s America,” said Biggar. “Even if my vote will make no impact on the election, I should vote because it is my statement that I have the ability to make.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage increase of ballot requests in several states.