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Overseas Ballot Flap: Domicile's Stained Glass Goes Global

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[Image courtesy of Curious Expeditions]

Yesterday's New York Times featured an article about overseas voters' unhappiness with new language on federal ballot request forms that require "civilian voters to make an all-or-none declaration either that they plan to return to the United States or have no intent of ever doing so."

The details:

[T]he Federal Post Card Application [FPCA] is issued by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the agency legally charged to assist all overseas voters. It resides in the Pentagon. The form is used to help voters abroad register and obtain ballots.

In the past, the form allowed a less absolute response -- that the voter was either residing abroad "temporarily" or "indefinitely" -- but the new form leaves civilian voters only these choices: "I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I intend to return," or "I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I do not intend to return."

The Pentagon office says it needs the information to help election officials decide whether to send out just federal ballots or federal and local ballots.

The change has brought complaints from overseas civilians and questions from members of Congress, who cannot understand why these voters are being asked to specify an intent to return that many of them - living abroad for work, study or family reasons - simply may not have.

To be fair, however, the confusing language of the form merely reflects the messiness of the underlying issue. Again, the NYT explains:

[FVAP's Bob] Carey said he had changed the wording in response to requests from state election officials. Voters from some states, he said, receive federal, state and local ballots only if they indicate an intention to return -- no matter when -- while those who express no intention to return receive only federal ballots.

The old language on the form, Mr. Carey said, was "basically forcing the state or local election official to divine the voter's intent to return."

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is - way back in September 2011 I wrote about the concept of domicile, which I likened to a stained glass window, saying:

[I]t isn't enough for a voter merely to choose a piece of the window; they must also be prepared to prove that they belong there. Residency requirements at virtually every level of government specify criteria to evaluate whether or not an individual is sufficiently a part of a jurisdiction to participate in its elections.

The FVAP FPCA flap (say that three times fast!) is just an extension of the stained glass window to cover the entire world. In this case, the new form has shifted the burden of figuring out domcile (which includes a definite, if ill-defined intent to return) from the election official to the voter. This entire problem is the result of an effort to figure out where to place people who haven't been physically part of the stained-glass window for years - and in the case of voting-age children, maybe never.

I am hopeful that FVAP and overseas civilians (who have often worked together to address issues like this) will find a way around this latest flap. But the problems posed by domicile - that beautiful yet aggravating stained glass window - aren't going away.

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