Change to Ballot Request Form Angers U.S. Expats-NYT

May 15, 2012

[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: Regular FACT readers know what I think of voting…anywhere—don’t bother. The erosion of our privacies is now complete. Govt wants to know what you’re doing now and any plans you may have for the future! If these are tick boxes, why tick ‘em? The US govt obviously thinks expats turned their back on that mother of all countries and probably stopped paying taxes to support it, too. So what right do expats have to have a say in elected politicians?]

Brian Knowlton

The New York Times: May 9, 2012

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/us/change-to-ballot-request-form-angers-us-expats.html

 

The Pentagon office with responsibilities for assisting U.S. military and civilian overseas voters is issuing a new ballot-request form that requires civilian voters to make an all-or-none declaration either that they plan to return to the United States or have no intent of ever doing so.

Expatriate groups say the choice is confusing and unfair, carries potential tax ramifications and could depress voting in ways that might affect close elections in November.

The new form, the Federal Post Card Application, is issued by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the agency legally charged to assist all overseas voters. It resides in the Pentagon. The form is used to help voters abroad register and obtain ballots.

In the past, the form allowed a less absolute response — that the voter was either residing abroad “temporarily” or “indefinitely” — but the new form leaves civilian voters only these choices: “I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I intend to return,” or “I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I do not intend to return.”

The Pentagon office says it needs the information to help election officials decide whether to send out just federal ballots or federal and local ballots.

But expatriate groups say this forces people into a choice they do not want, and in some cases are unable, to make.

“I’m very afraid that it will either completely confuse or deter large numbers of would-be voters,” said Lucy Stensland Laederich of the Federation of Women’s Clubs Overseas, who has lived in France since 1970.

At least half the group’s 15,000 members, she said, are living abroad not “because we wanted to, but because of marriage, employment, studies, N.G.O. or church work, etc.”

“I very frankly have no idea which of those two boxes to check,” she added, “because I do not ‘intend’ to return nor do I not ‘intend’ to return.”

Worse, she said, is the situation facing people like her daughter, also a U.S. citizen. “She neither intends nor doesn’t intend to ‘return’ because she has never lived there,” Ms. Laederich said.

In a conference call with election officials and expat advocates last week, Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, acknowledged that the changed wording had caused concerns and said that he hoped to add an explanatory preface on the organization’s Web site. But he said it was almost certainly too late to change the choices.

Mr. Carey said he had changed the wording in response to requests from state election officials. Voters from some states, he said, receive federal, state and local ballots only if they indicate an intention to return — no matter when — while those who express no intention to return receive only federal ballots.

The old language on the form, Mr. Carey said, was “basically forcing the state or local election official to divine the voter’s intent to return.”

In response to a core concern of expatriate groups, Mr. Carey denied that the answers on the form might increase voters’ exposure to taxes. The U.S. law that created his organization stipulates as much, he said. Intent to return means nothing as far as taxes are concerned, he said.

Asked about the tax issue, Roland Crim, director of American Citizens Abroad, said: “Individual states look at many factors in determining whether persons overseas are subject to state tax. It is incorrect and dangerous to advise voters that tax liability depends solely on whether a state ballot is simply requested or actually cast.”

At least one group that works with overseas Americans, the Overseas Vote Foundation, said it would still post on its Web site an old version of the form with the more accommodating language. Mr. Carey said it would be accepted.

If voters refused to check either of the boxes about intent to return, state and local officials might react differently, Mr. Carey said. Some would forward the federal ballot, some might forward both sets and some might not send either.

In a year when polls show the presidential contest could be extremely close and where absentee ballots could make a difference, the matter has drawn attention in Congress.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the caucus for overseas Americans, sent a letter to Mr. Carey on Tuesday saying that the new form made it “more difficult and problematic to use for overseas civilians.” It “puts most voters in an impossible position of stating what they cannot possibly know,” she said, and many will “very likely not continue further.” Mrs. Maloney also noted that expatriate advocates had said they were not consulted.

Mr. Carey conceded that the original request for public comment did not spell out this change; it was added later, he said, after the need for change became clear.

The language has the potential to carry real impact in close elections.

An example is the messy 2010 election dispute over a seat in the Texas House of Representatives from the district around Austin. A Republican challenger, Dan Neil, lost narrowly to a longtime Democratic incumbent, Donna Howard.

The 15-vote margin was smaller than the number of voters — 222 — who had used the Federal Post Card Application and checked “outside the U.S. indefinitely.” The county clerk had issued those voters only federal ballots, but Mr. Neil contended that their votes should have been included in his race.

Mr. Neil lost his challenge. The Texas Legislative Council found that, under state law, those who had marked that they were abroad “indefinitely” should have been given only federal ballots.

Ms. Howard won — ultimately by a revised four-vote margin — depriving Republicans of the seat that would have given them a supermajority in the Texas chamber.

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