New FVAP Report Highlights Impact of Voting Obstacles on Overseas Citizens


[Image via FVAP]

Late yesterday, the Federal Voting Assistance Program released the results of its latest Overseas Citizen Population Analysis. The survey seeks to determine the overall population of American overseas citizens (i.e. other than those serving in the military or their families) living around the world and then estimate their voting participation rate in the 2016 election. One notable conclusion was the existence of an “obstacles gap” which, if addressed, could increase the overseas voting rate fivefold. [NOTE: My new colleagues at the Fors Marsh Group conducted the survey and assisted with much of the analysis in the report.]

Here are the key takeaways, from FVAP’s release:

Today the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) released its biennial Overseas Citizen Population Analysis (OCPA) estimating there were 3 million U.S. citizens of voting age living abroad in 2016 who cast approximately 208,000 ballots. The overseas voter turnout of approximately 7 percent compares to a domestic turnout of 72 percent.

The OCPA examined that 65-percentage-point gap between overseas and domestic voting rates, breaking it into the portion attributable to infrastructure obstacles not faced by voters in the U.S., such as mail speed, versus the proportion attributable to other factors, such as motivation or awareness of U.S. elections. Just over 30 points of the gap were due to obstacles faced by overseas voters.

“Our study reveals that the voting rate of Americans living abroad would have increased from 7 percent to 37.5 percent, if overseas obstacles to voting were removed,” FVAP Director David Beirne said. “FVAP’s advanced methods are providing the most accurate estimates to date of U.S. citizens living overseas and the impact of obstacles on their voting experience.” [emphasis added]

FVAP’s survey further showed that greater than 9 in 10 overseas citizens who requested and received an absentee ballot did cast that ballot in the 2016 election. Nearly half (44 percent) said it was the first time they voted in a U.S. election from the country in which they were living. While there is no typical overseas voter, the average age is 46; nearly two-thirds are working; and they are highly educated, with nearly half holding a graduate or professional degree and another third holding a bachelor’s degree.

The “obstacles gap” is an attempt to identify the impact of various barriers (time, distance, unreliable mail service, etc.) on overseas voters and quantify how they affect the overall participation rate. In doing so, the idea is to distinguish voters who simply didn’t want to vote from those who did but couldn’t because they were prevented – or deterred – by those obstacles.

Even more intriguing was the fact that this gap varies from country to country and region to region, with voters in areas characterized by lower levels of development (including some countries in Eastern Europe/Asia, Latin America, and Africa) seeing higher “obstacles gaps” for their voters abroad.

One encouraging note is the fact that voters who do request and receive a ballot are very likely to return it; what this data suggests going forward is that FVAP and election officials in states and localities can and should work together to ensure that voters who want to participate are fully aware of their options for requesting, receiving and returning a ballot. Just like their counterparts at home, overseas Americans have a wide range of engagement in elections – suggesting that by overcoming obstacles to the voting process, FVAP can help that segment of the community abroad who is in fact engaged and interested to join the electorate and cast a timely and valid ballot.

Kudos to FVAP for sponsoring and sharing this incredibly rich and informative study – you can find the full report and a collection of related products and documents here. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change in the 2018 cycle and beyond … stay tuned!

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