By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Civilian expatriates who cast their votes in Florida are hitting new roadblocks.
Unable to rely on international mail delivery, they’ve been rerouted to the internet. For some, especially older voters whose tech prowess is no match for sluggish and erratic computer systems, it’s a bumpy ride.
Yet the problems underscore off-the-charts enthusiasm and voters’ determination to do whatever it takes to participate in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
In Florida alone, where 4.3 million mail-in ballots have been distributed near and far, county election offices are getting swamped with completed slates to process. The mail-in deluge is expected to continue through Nov. 13, the extended deadline for overseas vote delivery.
“It’s an exceptional year,” said Julia Bryan, global chair of Democrats Abroad, an arm of the Democratic National Committee with a long reach. Its 200,000 members live in 190 countries and vote in every U.S. state and congressional district.
This year the coronavirus pandemic has slowed snail mail all over the world. Policy changes that delay mail delivery make the U.S. Postal Service the subject of heated partisan debate.
Overseas voting ‘doubles the stress’
But an American in Paris, Canterbury or Prague can’t drive or walk to the nearest polling place and hand-deliver a paper ballot. So a combination of emailed ballots (incoming) and scanned and faxed paper images (outgoing) is the new normal. The details can stump even a tech-savvy voter.
Voters may not realize, for instance, that when they fax a ballot back to the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) office, they have to make sure the fax machine on the receiving end is working. And if those faxed ballot images are blurry, they’re rejected.
“Right now there’s a lot of stress, and when you add stress to forms and online complications, it just doubles the stress,” said Bryan, who lives in the Czech Republic.
Democrats Abroad has been assisting and advocating for American voters living overseas since 1964. About 16,000 volunteers are available to work on voter outreach in their home countries, Bryan said.
Also, for the first time, Democrats Abroad is partnering with a group of more than 200 former ambassadors led by Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017. The diplomats are leveraging their government connections and influence to get out the expat vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, overseas voters complain that U.S. election officials and elected representatives aren’t responding to their problems quickly enough. Sometimes they aren’t responding at all.
“Whether by default or design, Broward County’s overseas voters are being disenfranchised and the Supervisor of Elections Office isn’t taking it seriously,” said a retired journalist who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland and has dual citizenship. Her last U.S. home was in Broward County. Florida Bulldog is shielding her identity to avoid repercussions against her relatives who live here.
A Social Security problem
The Broward SOE office disputes her characterization and touts its overall success so far. “We’re clicking along quite nicely,” said spokesman Steve Vancore.
He said as of Wednesday morning, staffers who are already working extended hours had processed 95,000 absentee ballots. More than 400 came from overseas voters.
Bryan said in this election cycle “a rash of Florida counties” – Broward is not among them –rejected voter registrations for overseas citizens who couldn’t present their original Social Security cards. There’s no such legal requirement, most people don’t carry the cards, and it can take weeks to get a duplicate.
“As of now we’ve resolved at least four or five cases,” Bryan said. “We don’t know how many we were missing, we only counted those who came to us.”
On Tuesday, Bryan said a first-time voter who had to respond to a Social Security card demand finally registered in Gainesville. (A federal judge early Friday denied a voting rights group’s bid to further extend Florida’s election registration deadline after a computer crash, the Orlando Sentinel reported today.)
“We went back and forth in countless emails” with the Alachua County SOE, she said. “It was a matter of battling point by point through all the issues, repeatedly.”
Overseas voter seeks help
Alachua SOE spokesman T.J. Pyche said a clerical error and administrative gaffes created the problem and “it was straightened out.” He said the office doesn’t usually require Social Security cards for registration.
Democrats Abroad got four complaints about missing voter certification sheets in ballot packets emailed from Broward County, Bryan said. Without these signature pages, ballots are null and void.
The retired journalist living in Scotland had that problem in the course of her arduous e-voting project, plus more aggravation about misplaced instructions and disarranged pages. She had to advocate also for her husband and son.
Eventually, after several stressful days, all three voted, but it took a concerted effort and she fears others will get discouraged and give up.
“One might ask why a U.S. citizen who is a long-term expatriate would care about the election, or even have a right to vote,” she wrote in an email to Florida Bulldog. “For me, it’s because I still have obligations as an American, to file U.S. taxes every year for instance, and because I care about my friends and family in the U.S.
“The U.S. has a big influence on the rest of the world, and no one knows this better than Americans who live abroad,” she wrote.
A call to Rep. Deutch’s office
After several calls to the Broward SOE, she was told Thea Perry-Jones, the office’s point person for overseas voting, would call her back. She’s still waiting for the call.
On Wednesday Perry-Jones told Florida Bulldog she never got a message from or about the woman in question. Though Perry-Jones didn’t request contact information, she promised to call the woman back.
The frustrated voter also tried complaining to her congressman, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton. She said she was told no one could help her because Deutch doesn’t want to appear partisan.
Contacted by Florida Bulldog, Deutch’s spokesman Jason Attermann emailed a statement that says, in part, “Our policy is to help all constituents, whether they are overseas or across the street.” It continues, “However, we are prohibited from responding to questions or issues regarding campaigns and party politics.”
Military voters have used absentee ballots successfully since the Civil War. The modern Pentagon supports making one officer in each unit available to guide domestic and overseas service personnel through the voting process.
In contrast, civilians would be left to their own devices if not for groups like Democrats Abroad that steer them to the online portal votefromabroad.org. It provides backup ballots, help with faxing and other practical advice. The group’s website says the site is a “Public Service provided by Democratic Party Committee Abroad (DemocratsAbroad.org). This communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”
Small but mighty voting bloc
There’s also a group called Republicans Overseas that provides online advice on voting, though its main focus is tax issues. Representatives of Republicans Overseas could not be reached for comment.
“They’re a super PAC, and helping Americans abroad vote is not one of their top priorities,” Bryan said.
Civilian expats constitute a relatively small but influential voting bloc. The Federal Voting Assistance Program estimates the total number of eligible civilian voters who live overseas is 2.9 million. Democrats Abroad says there are 6.5 million.
Undoubtedly the U.S. polling place for tens of thousands of them is somewhere in Florida.
For the 2018 midterm election, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported, each of five Florida counties had at least 10,000 civilian and military overseas voters: Broward, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Duval and Escambia.
Bryan said these votes were game-changing for Florida Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried, the only Democrat in Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Cabinet.
Fried appeared to be losing her race on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. Pressed to concede, she refused to do so until all the absentee ballots were counted.
Her patience paid off; she won by 6,753 votes. “Those were the overseas ballots,” Bryan said.