The factors that have made voting more challenging this year are paradoxically the same ones that appear to be driving more Americans to vote early, including those living abroad. Dzieduszycka-Suinat, now the president and CEO of the U.S. Vote Foundation, said that its Overseas Vote initiative has seen a 150 percent increase in website traffic and absentee-ballot request-form generation compared with 2016—a rise that began as early as June. Beirne from the FVAP, which also provides online voter-registration services, said that upwards of 648,000 overseas ballot-request forms had been downloaded from its website as of October 13, far surpassing the 384,180 forms downloaded ahead of the 2016 vote. Nearly 37,000 federal write-in absentee ballots, an emergency backup for citizens who don’t receive a ballot from their state election officials in time to meet the voting deadline, were also downloaded. Vote From Abroad, an online voter-registration platform run by Democrats Abroad, the international arm of the Democratic Party, has seen more than two and a half times as many visitors this year as it did in 2016.
A number of states, which like the FVAP and other online services also field ballot requests directly from voters, are reporting increases over previous years too. “Many voters contacting us … have never voted in an American election,” Debra O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, told me in an email, noting that the state has fielded nearly 17,000 overseas ballot requests this year, compared with 10,513 in 2016. Increases have also been observed in Michigan (20,316 ballots, up from 14,782 in 2016), New York (58,330 ballots, up from 47,000), Washington (42,285, up from 27,917), South Carolina (13,465, up from 8,621), and Vermont (3,245, up from 2,723).
Ballot requests don’t tell the full story, though: Of the total number of ballots that are mailed out to overseas voters each election, as few as half are returned. During the 2018 midterm elections, for example, just over a quarter of Americans in Germany requested a ballot, and only about half of them ultimately cast it. Similar discrepancies were seen among American voters in Canada, the U.K., France, Switzerland, and Japan. And it’s not just a midterm phenomenon: Of the 930,000 ballots sent to overseas and military voters during the 2016 election, 633,000 were returned. Of those, just 512,696 were counted.
None of this is to say that overseas voters don’t make a difference. To the contrary, they could tip the balance in close races—particularly in competitive states such as Florida, which are poised to determine which party takes the White House. “This is where we can really come back and make a difference,” Julia Bryan, the global chair of Democrats Abroad, told me, noting that nearly half of overseas voters cast their ballot in swing states in the last presidential election.