Last updateFri, 24 May 2019 4pm

Absentee activity high in 2018 US election, as reports of uncounted ballots rankle some

A Tuesday report from VoteFromAbroad.org – just a week after the U.S. 2018 midterms – showing that use of the site was about eight times greater this year than in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, is making waves.

The important races still being recounted midweek, for example in Florida and Georgia, are part of what is drawing attention to this news. In addition, the U.S. Federal Vote From Abroad (FVAP) program estimates that over one percent of eligible U.S. voters (including military personnel) live abroad, likewise suggesting the importance of expat votes. 

pg3Meanwhile, and paradoxically, reports are emerging about problems with ballots mailed home from outside the United States, although some doubt these stories rise above the level of hearsay. 

“2018 VoteFromAbroad usage came up to almost 90,000, with just short of 30,000 in the month of October!” said Merrill Oates, who released the Tuesday IT analysis for Democrats Abroad. (VoteFromAbroad.org is a major website for helping absentee voters request ballots and get Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots.) Oates, an American living in Hungary, emphasized statistics showing that “we actually surpassed our … numbers from the 2012 presidential election year,” explaining that presidential elections usually have much higher voter participation rates than midterm elections, such as this year’s.

The numbers of U.S. citizens in Mexico who voted by absentee ballot in 2018 were also good, Oates said. His analysis showed that 6,130 people used the site to generate ballot requests to their home states (normally completed by email) or federal write-in ballots (returned electronically or by traditional mail services). Significantly, VoteFromAbroad.org was beefed up this year by new Spanish-language pages. But since this happened only a few weeks before November 6, the site, geared for dual citizens of the United States and Mexico, probably did not have much effect on this election.

However, mixed with news about high interest in absentee voting, came reports of problems with absentee ballots. Three Maryland voters living in Guadalajara reported similar glitches mailing in their ballots using the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx or DHL. All received an e-mail from the local election officials a few days before November 6 saying their ballots had not been received. While they appreciated this personal attention from the officials and realized the problem could have been due to not using a stamp, they still felt frustrated.

“We re-sent our ballot through FedEx for 1,000 pesos,” said one. “Then we got another, similar email saying it hadn’t been received, so we called, and the official said, ‘Oh yes, I see that so-and-so signed for the FedEx.’ But whether they counted our vote or not, we don’t know.” 

The third individual reported using DHL and getting a similar email from Montgomery County, Maryland. But he didn’t follow up because “my U.S. Senator and Representative had safe seats and my vote wasn’t necessary.”

Another Guadalajara resident reported problems voting in Florida, where more than one key race is being recounted. “I just sent my ballot from here via DHL and U.S. customs ripped open the ballot making it invalid. They ripped open the sealed ballots that were inside the DHL envelope.”

Likewise, Julia Bryan, a staffer at VoteFromAbroad.org has been asking for more examples of what may be a recurring problem—ballots being returned to overseas voters by the U.S. Postal Service and marked “Not deliverable as addressed – unable to forward.” Bryan’s interest followed a Washington Post story detailing the experience of a U.S. voter, Amalee McCoy, who resides in Thailand and whose ballot was inexplicably returned to Thailand marked “Not deliverable as addressed.”

“Overseas voters from Florida and Georgia…have reported that their ballot was returned to them…” Bryan said. “In many cases, these voters are using the pre-addressed envelope provided by their local election officials. Democrats Abroad is aware of approximately 40 cases (including nine in Florida and potentially as many in Georgia)…There is no explanation, nor is there any indication that these ballots ever left the U.S. post office before being returned to their sender. USPS has until now been unable to confirm why these ballots were returned. Democrats Abroad is continuing to pursue this issue with the United States Postal Service.”

Still, there is no consensus that these problems result from malice. 

“Every one that I’ve heard about would have to be called hearsay,” cautioned Larry Pihl, a leader of Democrats Abroad in Mexico.

“Yes, there have been some problems cited, such as in Georgia, where among some election officials there has been a tendency to restrict votes. There were a couple of people in Ajijic alleging they had problems with Georgia. Or people saying they sent their materials through the consulate but they didn’t arrive. But in general, I hate to jump on these problems. They could have been from human error, or machine error.”

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