Election 2012: Despite difficulties, student voters abroad cast ballots

Mark Robinson
Managing Editor

Millions of college students will head to the polls on Nov. 6 to cast their vote in the 2012 presidential election, but Ricardo Adams won’t be one of them. By then, his vote will already be cast.

Adams, a junior at VCU, is currently studying abroad in Vina del Mar, Chile. He’s a part of a bloc of U.S. students overseas whose potential impact on the election is seldom discussed.

Turnout among youth voters overseas has traditionally been inconsistent. Despite improvements made to the absentee registration and voting process, Americans who choose to vote abroad face the prospect of an extended ordeal that begs the question: Is it worth it?

For Adams, it was a no-brainer.

“Students living overseas have the opportunity to get a firsthand look at the enormous impact our elections have on the rest of the world’s opinion of us,” he said in an email about his choice to vote absentee. Though determined, he found the process to be more difficult than he originally thought.

Adams accessed his ballot online after receiving an email from the VCU Global Education Office with a link to the Federal Voting Assistance Program. He filled out a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot and planned to send it by mid-October, but repeated issues with mail delivery deterred him. After deciding to vote at the U.S. embassy instead, he couldn’t find transportation on Election Day. Finally, he mailed his ballot as he had originally planned.

As tedious as it may have been, Adams’ extra effort won’t be wasted. An election once characterized by double digit leads for President Barack Obama in battleground states is suddenly competitive.

A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports shows Republican challenger Mitt Romney with a slight lead over President Obama in Virginia. If the president is to win the commonwealth’s 13 electoral votes again in 2012, he’ll need a boost from youth voters – both inside and outside of the U.S. – similar to the one he got in 2008.

The 2008 presidential election saw the third highest turnout of youth voters in U.S. history: about 22 million. More than 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the 2010 Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education.

Turnout among youth voters overseas in the 2008 election wasn’t stellar. According to a post-election survey of civilian voters abroad conducted by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, 58 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds who responded said they did not vote in the 2008 election, more than any other age group. Legislation passed since then is expected to improve absentee turnout in 2012.

In 2009, the federal government passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act. The legislation led 47 states, including Virginia, to pass similar laws increasing enfranchisement of overseas voters.

Under the legislation, voters are no longer required to have absentee ballots notarized. States are required to send absentee ballots to registered overseas voters at least 45 days prior to the election. Electronic absentee ballots and registration applications must be made available online by each state in case hard copies don’t arrive, the law states.

Currently, 13 states allow online voter registration, according to a spokesperson for the Pew Center on the States; Virginia is not one of them.

The trend toward electronic registration was spearheaded in 2008 by the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF).  Nearly 5 million people accessed the OVF webpage in 2008, including nearly 2 million in the October before the election, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States.

Overseas Vote Foundation established an offshoot, Youth Vote Overseas (YVO), to target students going abroad. The organization does outreach with more than 450 colleges across the country, including more than 10 schools in Virginia.

The goal is to encourage students to register to vote before going abroad, explained Marina Mecl, Youth Vote Overseas outreach program director. As a result, much of YVO’s web traffic comes from within the U.S.

Contact with partner universities overseas helps YVO’s cause, Mecl said, especially in traditional hubs for exchange students.

Between July and October, the organization tallied its highest number of registrations abroad from the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and France – four of the top five study abroad destinations from 2008 to 2010. About three out of four voters registering on the site are between 18 and 24.

“At the most it takes eight to ten minutes to register. Ten years ago, it was a real challenge because we didn’t have these websites,” Mecl said in a Skype interview. “It’s really self-explanatory now.”

Still, some students struggle to cast their vote.

“Once I got here I realized it was a longer process than I thought,” said Channing Hicks, a junior International Studies and German double major studying abroad in Germany.

Hicks didn’t register before leaving for his semester abroad. By October, he said he didn’t have enough time to request a ballot and resend it before Virginia’s Oct. 26 deadline to vote absentee by mail.

It’s not uncommon for first-time voters to have trouble registering while overseas. As Stephanie Davenport, director of education abroad at VCU, explained, registering while abroad can “…be a barrier to some who may not have considered the issue or know how to properly register for an absentee ballot.”

VCU’s Global Education Office sent an email with voter registration information to all students scheduled to go abroad during the fall semester. They chose not to include information for private organizations, like Youth Vote Organization, to avoid bias, Davenport said in an email.

Hicks plans to travel to Frankfurt on Nov. 6 to cast his vote at the U.S. Embassy. Despite the difficulties, not voting is out of the question. There’s too much at stake.

Said Hicks:  “This is what we have to come home to after the semester.”

The CT’s Managing Editor Mark Robinson reported from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is studying abroad for the semester. 

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