How to Vote While Studying Abroad


Ashlee Kothenbeutel // Illustration Editor

Voting in the U.S. can be complex due to the variation in state laws regarding registration. The process can be further complicated by voting via absentee ballot, even more so for submitting an absentee ballot from outside the U.S. 

The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) reported that the turnout amongst eligible voting Americans abroad was only seven percent, significantly lower than the domestic 72 percent turnout. Moreover, only 30 percent of the gap was accounted for by logistical difficulties of voting while abroad. 

According to SLU’s Office of International Services, about 750-800 students participate in some kind of international program each year, with 159 students studying abroad during the fall 2019 semester. Although the Office of International Services sends some information to students studying abroad on how to vote, the process can still be difficult. Senior Katie Ross, who studied abroad at SLU Madrid in fall 2018, stated, “It was slightly difficult to make sure I was doing the process all correctly and that I could complete it in time.”


The first step to voting in any election is registration. Voters can be registered for primaries and general elections. Missouri holds “open” primaries, meaning anyone who is already a registered voter can participate, regardless of party affiliation or registration. However, some states require that voters be registered as Republicans or Democrats in order to vote in their respective primaries. 

If one is not registered to vote prior to studying abroad, they can do so in person at the local County Clerk’s office or the DMV. Applications for registration, which usually require little more than basic personal info such as a permanent address and social security number, can also be requested by mail or printed and sent from home. Deadlines vary by state, and it is important to leave time both to confirm registration and to request an absentee ballot. 

Anyone can check their registration status at, as well as a number of other websites that work to educate on registration processes and generate greater awareness of and participation in elections. The Secretaries of State of Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, also all feature websites that allow residents to check their voter registration and potentially change their registered address. 

Requesting an Absentee Ballot Abroad

After registering to vote, one must request an absentee ballot to be sent to their abroad address or to an email box. It is very important to request the ballot early enough to ensure that the ballot can be returned either by email or mail before the deadline.

SLU’s Madrid campus assists students with questions regarding registration and absentee ballots. Ross commented, “The school did a great job making it known that we could vote and providing resources on how to register.” Additionally, large voter mobilization organizations like “Rock the Vote” have volunteers and staff in Spain that can offer some direct assistance to students. Finally, the U.S. Department of State and the FVAP answer FAQs, provide guides and other information on a state-by-state basis.

Despite the number of resources available, many students, like their colleagues at  home in the U.S., chose not to vote while abroad. Ross said, “It was definitely easier to choose not to vote.” 

Senior Emily Chisholm, who was also at SLU Madrid in fall 2018, commented, “Those who chose not to vote thought it seemed like a lot of work and effort. Being so far from home, they also did not feel informed on the candidates … the [Rock theVote] volunteers in the cafeteria also did as much as they could to guide us through the process, and to be honest, guilt us into voting.”

Both Ross and Chisholm stated that in spite of the confusion and red tape that voting internationally can entail, voting was and is important and meaningful for students even while abroad. Chisholm stated, “I think for those of us who did vote, we felt like it was our civic duty. I still cared about the status of our country even though I was temporarily away from it.”

Similarly, Ross said, “All votes matter and practicing this right is a great way to stay connected to your home country and state. It will help give you a sense of accomplishment and you will definitely not regret casting your vote.”