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.