(CNSNews.com) – Over the coming weeks, state authorities across the nation will be responding to requests from hundreds of thousands of Americans living abroad for absentee ballots allowing them to have their say in November’s election.
The deadline for requesting ballots varies depending on the state, but for most it falls between mid-October and early November.
The federal government estimates there are 5.7 million American citizens living abroad, of whom 2.6 million can vote in November. How many will is anybody’s guess, although the last couple of election cycles recorded very low turnouts from civilian Americans overseas.
Americans abroad are not officially counted in the census, and accurate figures of civilians among them are notoriously hard to come by. Using varying methods of counting, estimates vary widely – from some 2.2 million, according to the World Bank, to around 8.7 million according to the State Department.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) puts the figure at 5.7 million this year, and says that, based on its research, the voting rate for eligible voters abroad in 2014 was just four percent. FVAP Director Matt Boehmer said the program does expect to see an increase in overseas voting rates in 2016.
The last presidential election year, 2012, recorded a marginally higher turnout of absentee ballots cast, five percent, according to the FVAP.
The FVAP data was compiled from U.S. government sources, foreign countries and academic studies.
By contrast, scholars at Rothermere American Institute (RAI) at Oxford University in England put the 2012 overseas voter turnout higher, around 12 percent.
RAI says that in 2012 a total of 606,425 overseas ballots were returned (278,212 of those counted came from civilians) which, assuming an eligible overseas population of five million, represented to a 12 percent turnout.
Americans abroad have been allowed to vote by absentee ballot since the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1975.
The current law, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), is managed by the FVAP on behalf of the Secretary of Defense.
FVAP says the countries where the largest numbers of eligible American voters live are Canada, Britain, France, Israel, Japan and Australia.
Even with low turnouts in recent elections, the potential impact of overseas voters should not be underestimated, studies say.
RAI scholars, like many others who research the issue, point to the 2000 presidential election, when Florida was pivotal to the White House race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and overseas absentee ballots were seen to have tipped the scales in favor of Bush.
“Overseas voters certainly proved decisive in 2000, with Florida’s certified election results showing that Al Gore would have won the state – and thus the presidency – by 202 votes but for 2,490 overseas ballots counted after Election Day,” Time magazine reported in 2012.
In addition, a number of close Senate and House contests over the past decade were won by margins smaller than the number of overseas ballots received, including those won by Sen. Jim Webb in Virginia in 2006 – when Democrats wrested control of the Senate from the GOP – and by Sen. Al Franken in Minnesota two years later.
Ohio is another swing state where overseas ballots are closely watched. As of last Saturday, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said 13,204 requests for absentee ballots had been received from military and overseas voters. A spokesman said the figures would be updated next Monday.
Ohio is one of 12 states to allow ballots arriving after Election Day to be counted. To be eligible, they must be postmarked by the day before the election and arrive within 10 days of Election Day.
In 2012, 15,346 military and overseas ballots were counted in Ohio while in 2008 the number was 10,426.
Unlike the situation in Florida in 2000, overseas votes do not look likely to have a big impact in Ohio, where each of the last four presidential elections was decided by margins of well over 110,000.
The respective Democratic and Republican organizations representing Americans abroad have differing relationships to the parties.
Democrats Abroad, an official affiliate of the Democratic Party established in the 1960s, is recognized as the equivalent of a state during primary contests.
Democrats Abroad held its first “global primary” in 2008, with members around the world voting by mail, fax, online or in person for their preference for the party’s presidential nominee.
A total of 22,715 people voted, and Barack Obama won 66 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 33 percent, giving Obama 2.5 more delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention while Clinton received an extra two.
This year, the number of people participating in the Democrats Abroad global primary jumped to 34,570. Bernie Sanders won 69 percent of the vote and Clinton’s 31 percent, giving Sanders an extra nine pledged delegates and Clinton four.
By contrast to Democrats Abroad, Republicans Overseas, a 527 organization founded in 2013, is not legally connected to the Republican National Committee (A number of branches of Republicans Abroad continue to operate in individual companies, but the international organization closed down in 2013.)
Republicans Overseas did not hold an official primary this year, but did offer a straw poll to gauge support levels for the GOP candidates. In Britain, the Republican Overseas straw poll handed 27 percent to Marco Rubio, 19.5 percent to Donald Trump and 15 percent to Rand Paul.