Saturday, September 25, 2010

Voting From Abroad

Today, we voted in the USA and California elections, from Costa Rica. Because the Democrats Abroad organization had a get-out-the-vote event today, it was pretty easy.*

One thing that makes a big difference (at least for California) is whether you register as living abroad temporarily or indefinitely. To quote from the California SOS website (

"You are eligible to vote in California's federal, state and local elections if you are a U.S. citizen living temporarily outside of the U.S. who lived in California immediately prior to your departure from the United States. If you are living abroad for an indefinite period, you can only vote in elections for federal offices (President, Vice President, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives)."

This was the first time we registered as living abroad for an indefinite period! In all the previous elections, we lived in both Costa Rica and California. We went through all that agony of reading and trying to understand all the ballot measures, divining which candidates would best represent us, and finally, rejoicing or lamenting the results. This year, we simply wrote down two names - it took us longer to fill in all the forms than to decide how to vote!

I have mixed feelings about this - I have always hated voting, and have always done it from a sense of duty. Because of that, I spent a lot of time reading the propositions, pros, cons, etc. And in the end, I never really felt that I got the whole story. But I was fully engaged. Now, I don't have to spend that sort of effort, but I also am not *allowed* to participate. So, for the moment, especially since I have no choice, I will lean toward relief :-).

The type of residency that your state** says you have when you move abroad affects much more than just your voting. You have to worry about all sorts of things:
  • mailing address - no matter what, you are still going to get mail. Do you want it all forwarded to you out of the country? Probably not. Many people impress family members or friends to take care of their mail, but there are also companies that will sort through your mail and notify you of contents and forward as necessary. The post office does not know that you are out of the country indefinitely. It only knows if you are out temporarily if you have your mail held (and even then, it would be guessing). A mailing address in the state generally doesn't affect your residency status.
  • banking - it's generally a good idea to keep some kind of banking presence in the USA. As dismal as the interest rate is on savings accounts, it can often be a bit better than other banks. Also, if you get social security or pension checks, many countries aren't set up to receive these directly - many people get their checks deposited into their USA bank, then transfer money as needed to their new country. Bank accounts in Costa Rica are fairly difficult to open, and often are frozen or closed without notice. Unfreezing or reopening these accounts is a time-consuming process, and almost always requires a personal visit with documents in hand.
  • driver's license - most people keep their state driver's license. Most countries allow you to drive on your USA license, at least for some period of time. You have to figure out what to do when it is time to renew, and that is when a mailing address really helps. The DMV would not know or care about any change in your residency status, unless you changed states (and this is not the case).
  • taxes - you'd better believe you still pay taxes! The good news is that you can get your refund checks mailed to you in your new country, or direct deposited into your USA bank. You also get a later filing date - no more April 15th deadline; your agony can be extended all the way out to June 15th! The IRS and state tax board have all sorts of rules you get to discover when you change your country of residency and your stateside residency status.
  • health (and other) insurance - we've been away from the states since before the new health-care laws came into effect, so I'm not completely sure what is required of those of us living abroad indefinitely. We're not exactly residents, but we're not "non-residents" either.
  • jury duty - this was confusing at first! I actually got a jury duty summons! I finally remembered that the summons specifically says to not forward, so I asked my put-upon family mail-sorters to return it with that designation. I would think that if you are living abroad temporarily, you would have to ask for an extension, and eventually have to show up.
  • rights upon your return - if you have claimed that you are living indefinitely abroad, then return to the USA, what might you have to do to reclaim residency? Let's say you wanted to attend UC Davis as a resident - more than likely, you would have to establish residency just like someone who moved to California from another state. But it would be worth asking directly about this, especially if you have maintained at least some presence in the state. If you lived abroad temporarily, then you retain all rights of California residency, and don't have to do anything.

The great thing {insert eye-roll} is that these government offices don't seem to be in sync!

* Anyone living abroad can vote on their own (see or You do not have to be a Democrat to register or vote at these events - you can register for any party (or none), and vote for whoever you like.

**Each state has its own rules regarding continuing residency and voting. The state where you resided immediately before moving abroad is the one whose rules you follow. Most states consider you a resident (of some sort) even while you are abroad.


Stephanie A. said...

Julie, thanks for sharing this information. My husband and I are planning to move to Costa Rica early next year, and these kinds of posts are very helpful. Residency, taxes, mail, voting...we definitely need to figure these things out sooner than later.


Julie said...

Hi Stephanie - glad it helps! If you don't figure out everything when you originally think you need to, you will probably find that there's plenty of time - a few false starts just enriches your life :-).