McKenzie Paterson and Yaneth Peña
Sometimes as Peace Corps Volunteers it feels like we’re powerless in making an impact on the things happening back home in the United States. We read the news, engage in conversation with one another and with people from home, but we’re on the other side of the world. How much of a difference can we actually make? As much as we want – it just boils down to wanting to want it.
So, you have the motivation. Now what? How can you make your voice be heard from more than 8,000 miles away? Believe it or not, there are many ways.
Well, no big deal, but we’re in the midst of a landmark midterm election season, with it all coming to a head this November. Control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate are up for grabs, which has major ramifications for the future of our country.
I bet you didn’t know that only 12% of Americans abroad vote in presidential elections, and even fewer in midterm, state, and local elections. Collectively, Americans living abroad are the 51st state and 13th most populous. Our voting turnout has the potential to swing election results.
Voting abroad as Peace Corps Volunteers can seem intimidating, but it’s actually pretty simple. You can make your voice heard this November by following these four steps:
- Step 1: Register to vote
- Step 2: Request your absentee ballot
- Step 3: Vote
- Step 4: Return your absentee ballot
How do I register?
If you’ve voted in a previous election, you may already be registered! To make sure, check your voter registration status online. If you are registered to vote – great! You can request your absentee ballot. If you are not yet registered to vote – no problem. Register to vote with the Federal Post Card Application.
31 states and the District of Columbia allow you to register online. For states that don’t allow online registration, print, sign and date the form and follow the instructions for returning it. Instructions vary by state – read them carefully. If you don’t receive a confirmation email that your ballot request was received, follow up with your local election office to confirm.
In which state do I vote?
Usually, use your last residential U.S. address. You also might be able to use the address on your driver’s license or state-issued I.D.
How do I request my absentee ballot?
Some states allow you to register to vote and request your absentee ballot concurrently with the same form. For those who can’t, you can use the same site that you used to register to vote above to request your absentee ballot.
There are many options and services online; however, Federal Voter Assistance Program is a reliable federal organization that specializes in helping Service members and Americans living overseas to vote. They have step by step directions, printable forms, and all the details you need.
How do I vote and who/what am I voting for?
Depending on how you’ve requested to receive your ballot, it may come via postal mail or email. While you wait, it’s always a good idea to know what issues your state is voting on and where the candidates stand on them before you vote. Do your homework: Headcount offers several resources for information about your state’s ballot, VoteSmart offers information about local candidates, Propublica’s Represent tracks congressional votes, which is especially useful for candidates running for reelection, and The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) offers a database of ballot measures for every state, letting you know what questions voters will be deciding directly.
Once you receive your ballot, fill it out by voting for your candidates, both on local and federal levels, and measures. Then mail it in by the deadline. Some states allow you to supplement your mailed ballot with a faxed or emailed ballot. If you’re unsure, contact your local election office to inquire. But a ballot is not official until it is mailed. Don’t forget to mail it.
When should I register, request my ballot, and return it?
The earlier the better, especially if your state doesn’t allow online registration. You must account for postal mail delivery time for your registration form and/or your absentee ballot. Each state has their own registration and voting deadline. Check your state’s voter registration deadline. If you don’t receive a confirmation email that your ballot was received, follow up with your local election office to confirm. If your vote does not arrive by the deadline for your state, it may not be counted.
For future elections, it’s a good idea to register and request your absentee ballot at the beginning of the year to ensure you receive ballots for all primary, general, and special elections.
An alternative to mailing your voting materials directly to your local election office is to bring or mail them to the Peace Corps Office (Attention: DMO). They will be taken to the U.S. Embassy on a weekly basis.
What if I still haven’t received my ballot?
If there’s less than a month until the election or you don’t receive your absentee ballot in enough time to meet your state’s deadline, you can cast a backup vote using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. If you receive your state ballot after you send the write-in ballot, you should still fill it out and return it. States will only count write-ins if they don’t receive state ballots by the deadline.
Before you stop reading, let me stop you. It’s way easier than you think.
Contacting Congress is a powerful way to stay politically active between election seasons. We vote for our representatives to represent our voices. So don’t stop using yours once elections are over. Decisive economic, political, and social issues are debated every day. If you have an opinion on an issue, don’t just tell your PCV friends about it, tell your representatives!
How do I contact my representatives?
You can identify and contact your representatives with this U.S. public database. It also provides contact info for state and local representatives as well.
Emailing your representatives is the most convenient way for us PCVs, but phone calls are more effective because they’re more personal. If you choose to make that extra effort, you can use Skype, which offers calls to the U.S. landlines for only $0.05 per minute. True to 2018, you can also follow them on social media and comment on their posts. Whatever method you choose, though, is a clear message that you want your voice to be represented.
Which of my representatives can I contact?
You can call both of your senators, the representative from your congressional district and the Speaker of the House. Do you homework about the issue you want to address and know in which House the measure is being voted.
How do I know what to contact Congress about?
The most solid foundation for making a difference in our society is to stay informed. Staying educated with current events from afar can be overwhelming, but there are some ways to make it easier to stay on top of policy issues and to take action:
- Track legislation in Congress. Countable tracks pending legislation and lets you contact your representatives about the issues directly. GovTrack not only tracks legislation and voting records, but it provides a comprehensive and straightforward information about the political process. I don’t know about you, but I for one didn’t appreciate the true value of 10th-grade government class.
- Sign up for email alerts from advocacy groups that support causes important to you. Not only will it keep you abreast on relevant issues, but it will provide you with opportunities to take action, such as signing online petitions. Check out Wall-Of-Us, MoveOn, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) for action lists of many timely issues.
What should I say?
Do your homework about the issues with the help of the resources above in additional to reliable news sources so you can informatively argue an issue with conviction. If you don’t know what to say, though, there are several resources you can use that provide scripts on many relevant issues, including the 65, YourLobby.Org, and 5 Calls. Indivisible offers suggestions on the many ways to be politically active citizens.
When you contact your representatives, be clear, earnest, and concise with your position. And, regardless of the representative and your personal opinions about them, be respectful.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re reminded of our privilege as American citizens on a daily basis. We learn to appreciate it and not take it for granted. The democratic process is one such privilege. So use your voice and make it count: sign petitions, contact your representatives, donate, and VOTE.
No matter how you vote, vote – vote your conscience for the good of the country.