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Stained Glass Globe Update: Pentagon Relents on Disputed Domicile Language

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[Image courtesy of Curious Expeditions]

Back in May, I wrote about unhappiness in the overseas voting community about a new language on the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) that asked applicants to declare whether or not they had any "intent to return" to the United States.

That language, which the government said was intended to help election officials determine whether or not to send non-federal (state and local) ballots to applicants, raised concerns about the impact on the voting status - and in some cases, tax status - of overseas voters.

Yesterday, word came that the government was reversing course and would accept older versions of the FPCA which omit the disputed language. According to the New York Times:

The Pentagon unit, the Federal Voter Assistance Program, serves both military voters and overseas civilians. It had said that its new Federal Post Card Application form -- which is used to register to vote and request an absentee ballot -- would require civilians abroad to stipulate either that "I intend to return" to the United States or "I do not intend to return." Many expatriates expressed consternation. Some said they had no idea whether they would ever return. Still others complained that declaring an intent to return might subject them wrongly to state taxes.

Expatriates said they faced an uneasy choice of answering untruthfully or simply not voting. The Pentagon agency had said that the change could not be revoked.

But in an e-mail Friday to expatriate groups, the agency's acting director, Pam Mitchell, said she had received clearance to offer both the old and newer versions of the voting form.

It came after five members of Congress, including Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who heads the Americans Abroad Caucus, wrote the defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, asking for the old form to remain available. "No eligible voter should be faced with the unjust, unnecessary and improper choice between misleading their government and participating in our democratic system," the June 21 letter said.

That same day, a law firm working for the Overseas Vote Foundation, Winston & Strawn, sent the Pentagon a letter suggesting that the new form would "reduce voter participation."

"The system was on the cusp of an epidemic of voter disenfranchisement," said Roland Crim of American Citizens Abroad. "The language of the new form left many potential voters with no good choice."

It will be interesting to see how (if at all) this change, which the Overseas Vote Foundation hailed as a "major overseas voting rights win", creates problems for election officials with regards to non-federal ballots. It was never totally clear how big the non-federal ballot question was; at least now (with all the attention on the issue) we will have a better sense of the scope of the problem and have an opportunity for a more targeted approach to solving it.

This change will not make the difficult issue of domicile go away - indeed, nothing ever does - but for now it is good to see that Americans around the world will have a chance to be heard on Election Day.

NOTE: The blog, like most of you, will be taking tomorrow off for Independence Day. We'll see you back here Thursday morning.

2 Comments


  • The 2005 Federal Post Card Application, which is once again available as a download on the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) website, was never withdrawn from use. Election officials across the US were—and continue to be—obliged to accept it even though the new, more legible and modern form was introduced early in the fall of 2011.

    And it is the new form that voters obtain when using the FVAP's online wizard at http://fvap.gov The FVAP has added helpful "information pop-ups" and a separate Help page to explain the need for, and purpose of, the new wording regarding "intent to return."

    In discussions with overseas citizens' groups and state election officials this past spring, the FVAP released data showing that about 18% of voters registering through the FVAP website in the last six months of 2010, selected the option "overseas indefinitely" on the old form.

    Yet, after the new form was introduced, more than one-third of voters registering through FVAP in the seven-month period from November 2011 to May 2012, selected the option "do not intend to return", which shows clearly that this option did not create the fear in voters' minds that its opponents claim.

    Finally, as former FVAP Director Bob Carey pointed out at last spring, at least one large batch of illegally cast ballots was thrown out in an election contest because of the ambivalent wording on the old form. Election officials in Texas had improperly sent voters state and local ballots when they were only entitled to federal ballots.

    We believe the new wording—and raising awareness among overseas voters—is the surest path to effective elections.

    Tony Frank Paschall
    Founder & Chair
    Union of Overseas Voters
    Paris, France
    http://WeVote.fr

  • I live in Washington state, which doesn't have a state income tax and every year, including this one, I received my ballot on time and in the form I like best - paper.

    I think the problem only arises if your state collects income taxes from its citizens. There might have been a more elegant way to determine if people planned to return to the US to live, than creating enfranchisement problems for a population which has recently overcome them.

    I'm currently in Greece, which I consider my temporary home. I'm a Washington State resident and expect to be for the foreseeable future.

    I'm happy the Pentagon agreed with most of us that voting rights is not its strong suit, and personally, I don't want it to be. I want the military to protect the homeland and perhaps some other agency could take over overseas and military voting. I know this started with the Civil War, but that was over 150 years ago. It is time for another federal agency (the Election Assistance Commission, maybe?) to pick up the baton.

    Thanks for providing me with this opportunity to voice my opinion.

    Harolynne Bobis
    Washington State voter since 1979

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