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Overseas ballot requests set record, but will votes reach U.S. shores?

"People just were calling all hours of the day," said Marc Zell, who's with Republicans Overseas. "I haven't really slept in six weeks."
IMage: President Donald Trump and his main contender, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden
A U.S. presidential election mail-in ballot received by a citizen living in Berlin in September.Sean Gallup / Getty Images file

It took two very expensive international phone calls, 15 emails and several wrong web addresses, but Jennifer Sun, an Alabaman living in the Chinese city of Shanghai, finally got the right ballot to send in her vote.

"I'm like, come on, guys. It's ballots! You can't accidentally send someone the wrong link. That needs to be triple-checked before it's released, right?" she said by telephone.

"I tried to click on the second link, but it still didn't work, because they hadn't canceled my first link," she said before expressing her doubts about Alabama's capacity to manage votes from overseas.

A U.S. citizen receives ballot papers to cast her absentee vote from abroad for the presidential election at the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic, Mexico, on Oct. 20.Fernando Carranza / Reuters file

"There is quite a lot of confusion for a lot of people," Sun said. "There are a lot of Americans here that are not as familiar with the consulate and its services."

The confusion could cost an election back home during what many see as a pivotal presidential race. So-called overseas votes — which are also cast by Americans in Canada and Mexico — could prove crucial.

An estimated 3 million eligible voters were living abroad in 2018, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, equivalent to the population of Colorado.

In the 2016 presidential election, just 6.9 percent of eligible overseas voters actually cast their ballots, according to a September 2018 report from the Federal Voting Assistance Program. Back home, 55.67 percent of eligible voters turned out.

This election, those voting in battleground states have an even greater chance for impact, said Julia Bryan, the international chair of Democrats Abroad, the official Democratic Party arm for the millions of Americans living outside the U.S.

"If you look across the United States right now, you know all of these Senate races which are really very close, the margins are very tight," she said. "Any time there's a 1 percent margin in an election, that's where the overseas vote can come in and make a difference."

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When President Donald Trump won Michigan by only 11,000 votes in 2016, Steve Nardi of the Democrats Abroad chapter in Canada saw a huge opportunity.

Close to 20,000 Americans live right across the river in Windsor, Ontario, according to the 2016 Canada census, and over 50 percent of them are from Michigan. If those voters showed up in 2020 and were largely Democratic, Michigan could turn from red to blue.

Nardi said that this time around, he was feeling extremely confident about the turnout from the Americans in Canada.

So far, close to 85 percent of Michigan voters in Democrats Abroad in Canada have requested ballots for 2020, more than double the number of requests in 2016.

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"It's the volume," Nardi said. "I'm still seeing the requests coming in for people requesting their ballot."

Globally, the number is even higher. Democrats Abroad have received three times the number of ballot requests as it did four years ago in chapters around the world. Visitors to its website have surpassed 1 million.

"The challenging thing is each state will give its own guidelines for returning the ballots," said Kent Getsinger, a Kentucky voter who is chair of the Australia chapter of Democrats Abroad. "It would be a lot easier if this was all uniform."

Israeli American lawyer Marc Zell, who has worked for Republicans Overseas for 30 years, also said voter registration and absentee ballot requests were way up this year.

"People just were calling all hours of the day," said Zell, a Maryland voter. "I haven't really slept in six weeks because of all these inquiries."

Both Republicans and Democrats expressed concern that the coronavirus pandemic had also slowed the process, as a dramatic decrease of international flights in and out of the U.S. has brought the delivery time of overseas mail to a crawl and sent the price of courier services skyrocketing.

A woman distributes the multi-language newspaper The Epoch Times in Hong Kong on Oct. 23, featuring the election debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty

"We're seeing ballots getting stopped at the border. We have a bunch of ballots stopped in customs right now. And then there're always ballots that get stuck in the International Service Centers," Bryan said.

She added that people used to celebrate online after they voted, "but now we're celebrating when our ballots are accepted."

Zell said the pandemic had forced Republicans Overseas to come up with creative ways to ensure that the ballots made it to their destinations. In one case, he said, 30 ballots from the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania were hand-carried from Israel aboard a flight to the U.S.

Dana Rawls, a Georgia voter who is Australia co-chair of the Global Black Caucus for Democrats Abroad, has spent over $70 and still doesn't know whether her vote will be counted.

She said that she had been sent an email saying her electronic ballot was ready on Sept. 18 and that she filled it out and mailed it back the same day.

"I have no idea if it is going to get there in time," she said.

Bryan said she has heard of several cases of voters who thought their ballots would be traveling from Australia by plane, only to find out that they were aboard slow boats.

The work will not end on Election Day for Bryan or her colleagues, as Democrats Abroad will be speaking out in behalf of U.S. citizens abroad and working to ensure that the votes that reach American shores are actually counted.

"We will be working on voter protection issues," Bryan said. "We did this in 2018: We helped Florida voters secure their ballots. We helped Arizona voters make sure their ballots were counted, as well. We did the same thing for Georgia voters."