MEDELLÍN, Colombia – Panicked calls from overseas voters usually come in November, just two or three days before the election, says Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, founder of non-partisan Overseas Vote Foundation.
This year, a wave came in August, a crush of voters asking: Where is my ballot? How can I vote from abroad? How can I do it without the U.S. Postal Service?
“It’s indicative of what I would call, simply, voter hysteria,” the leader of the voting rights organization said. “They’re just seeing red. They’re seeing the horror, they’re hearing the headlines, and they’re panicking.”
The headlines being the quagmire involving the USPS.
Congressional Democrats alleged that delays and operational changes at the Postal Service threaten the agency’s ability to handle an increase of mail-in ballots, which is expected since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many states to expand voting by mail to reduce crowds on Election Day.
Although Postmaster General Louis DeJoy pledged in August that he suspended some operational changes until after the election and that all election mail would be delivered on time, many of the 6.5 million eligible civilian U.S. voters living abroad remain concerned.
“If the U.S. government was looking for one dagger in the heart of overseas voting, they found it with this,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.
The pandemic has thrust Americans voting overseas into a complex and changing labyrinth of restrictions, closures and delays.
Hiccups in the voting process
Voters living abroad cast their votes largely through absentee ballots. Depending on the state they are voting in, that process ranges in complexity. For some, it’s as simple as registering and submitting materials online. For others, it can be a months-long process of physically mailing voting materials through international mail.
Currently, 21 U.S. states and territories require their overseas voters to return ballots by postal mail or dropping ballots in the diplomatic pouch at embassies.
However, embassies in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru have suspended the pouch drop service. In the Dominican Republic alone, that could affect 250,000 U.S. voters.
Others still accepting ballots say there could be a four- to six-week delay in delivery.
Even then, mobility restrictions may make access to embassy mail impossible, explained Jennifer Earll, a 49-year-old voter from Seattle who moved to Panama five years ago. Earll says it’s legally impossible to travel hours to the U.S. Embassy in Panama City due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
She also can’t return home because she said her husband is receiving chemotherapy treatment in Latin America that they can’t afford in the U.S.
While Earll can submit her ballot online, and has done so in past elections, she said she’s already experienced hiccups in the process.
“Those who actually have to physically send ballots somewhere, jeez, I don’t know,” she said. “I hope it works out for them because a lot of people are really concerned about this particular election.”
Panama is among 63 countries that have suspended mail services or reported disruptions with the United States because of the pandemic. Many more already have long delays or unreliable mail service. Such lags are the leading cause of overseas ballots getting rejected, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
‘It’s a little bit terrifying’
Madeline Schwartz planned to fly from Dublin, Ireland, where she works as a film editor, home to Oregon in November to vote in person in the 2020 election. With coronavirus, that changed.
In early August, she requested her absentee ballot through international mail. Though she started the process early, she said she’s worried that “outside forces” or long mail delays may silence her voice this election.
“It’s a little bit terrifying [the possibility] that my vote won’t end up counting,” the 24-year-old said. “I’m one person and if the USPS is down, there’s not a lot I, from Ireland, will be able to do to ensure that my ballot gets there. It’s putting a lot of trust in a broken system.”
Though courier services, like FedEx and DHL, are another option, it could cost up to hundreds of dollars.
“There has to be a healthy postal service,” said Marylouise Serrato, the executive director of American Citizens Abroad. “This is critical for all voters, but in particular for overseas voters because that really is the only way they can vote.”
American Citizens Abroad has heard from voters who sent in their ballot requests weeks ago, but still haven’t received confirmation. It wrote a letter to Congress and the Trump administration, urging them to take extra precautions to ensure those votes are counted.
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