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Dual citizens abroad say it’s worth obstructing ballot boxes to make sure their votes count

Jennifer Lee has voted by mail several times in her life, but she has never had an experience like she did this year. As a dual citizen of the United States and South Korea, it was the first time she had voted from abroad – and the process came with hurdles.

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Lee told NBC News. “When I was in the US, I could go to someone’s house and use their printer or go to an office supply store. When I moved overseas, it wasn’t as easy.

Thousands of dual citizens like Lee are eligible to vote in the upcoming election, and experts say in a tight race they could form a critical bloc.

These ballots could have a significant impact in close elections. In 2020, Georgia registered 27,252 votes from abroad, which exceeded the margin of victory of 11,779 votes that tipped the state blue. The same was true for Arizona, where 21,661 out-of-country votes exceeded the state’s margin of victory of 10,457 votes.

But while dual citizens have a constitutional right to vote, a messy system and a lack of infrastructure often prevent them from doing so, advocates said. Getting their ballot printed and postmarked by November 8 isn’t as easy as it is for people who vote by mail in the US

For those who don’t speak English, don’t have a US address, or are in a country with an unreliable postal system, the time it would take to vote by mail is enough to be prohibitive.

“Sometimes, at the end of the day, it’s a case where there’s no great solution,” said Emily Lines, chair of the Global Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus for Democrats at the ‘foreign. “Unfortunately, they simply lose their right to vote and will be disenfranchised.”

Lines helps dual citizens living in Asia access election information and get their votes, and while there’s a lack of official data on how many people these issues affect, she said voting from abroad is more difficult in all areas.

“It’s a wide range of people from various socio-economic backgrounds who live overseas,” Lines said. “It’s not just rich retirees or wealthy people.”

The troubleshooting she has done runs the gamut from computer issues to translations to people not knowing they have the right to vote in the first place.

“Someone told me he sent out his ballot in early October and still hadn’t been told it had arrived,” Lines said. “Each state should allow ballots to be returned by email.”

Even for voters like Lee who have most of the resources they need, the specific printing requirements, scheduling, and shipping cost of their ballot make it a difficult system to navigate.

“It’s very expensive to send him straight back to the United States,” Lee said. “But I know it’s the only way to make sure it gets there properly and on time.”

The overseas voting process

Although the process varies from state to state, dual citizens living abroad encounter difficulties at every stage of the electoral process.

Registration to vote must be done well in advance and can usually be done online. But what should be the easiest part of voting comes with its own set of challenges.

“Some states have attempted to tighten the security of their election websites. However, they have automatically blocked IP addresses that are not US IP addresses,” Lines said. “So people say, ‘Well, I can’t access the website.’ So we’re like, “OK, you need to get a VPN and do all these extra things.”

Beyond simple website access, foreign-born US citizens may not be able to register to vote. Thirteen states – including Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania – prohibit mail-in voting for citizens who have never resided in the country.

“Obviously telling people, ‘Well, go live there for 30 days,’ that’s not something people can do,” Lines said. “We are doing our best to try to help them as much as possible. “Do you have any close relatives who live in another state in the United States? You may be able to use their address.

If all else fails, many simply lose their chance to vote.

“As American citizens, no matter where you live overseas or where you reside, you must file taxes for the United States,” she said. “So they have the right to vote, they should be able to vote and sometimes they just can’t.

Once a person has successfully registered to vote from abroad, the next step is to request and return an absentee ballot.

Lines said she’s seen people struggle to get the specific paper size and marking required for the ballot to be counted, as those things can vary by region. Most states also require ballots to be postmarked by Election Day and received by the seventh day after the election to be counted. Some countries do not apply the postmark at all.

“It gets really tricky,” she said. “One more thing we always have to tell people is, ‘Make sure you have a postmark.'”

‘Why should they vote?’

With seemingly endless possible hurdles to jump through, Lines said it’s easy for people, especially those with little connection to the United States, to feel disincentivized to vote. She herself wrestled with the question: why should a citizen who has never lived in the United States vote at all?

But the answer she arrived at was simple: it’s their right.

“We’re one of those countries that allows people to vote if they have citizenship, regardless of how long they’ve been outside the country,” Lines said. “I feel like if they have that right, they should exercise that right because it could be taken away from them. In some cases it is being taken away.”

Lee said she has always been the person in her family who gets people to vote. As for voting this year from Korea, she didn’t see it as any different.

“I just think it’s important to have your voice heard even if you’re not physically in the United States,” she said. “I think you can still make a difference with your votes.”

Some dual nationals may not call the United States, but Lines said US policies are having an effect everywhere.

“What happens in the United States impacts everyone around the world, whether we like it or not,” she said. “It will probably influence their lives in one way or another, directly or indirectly. We have seen from 2016 to 2020 the kind of impact the president can have on their lives. If they have the right and can help influence how it goes, so they should. It’s worth it.”

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