Can You Vote in U.S. Elections as an Immigrant or Expatriate: A Necessary Guide

"I Voted" United States election sticker

Voting is perhaps the most important right one has as an American citizen. It’s one of the few ways that a person can make their voice known in a democratic society. It’s also a right that is not afforded to many citizens living under dictatorships or beneath an authoritarian government, and it’s a right that people have fought and even died for in years past. Even if you move abroad or travel overseas, whether temporarily or more permanently, you are still afforded the right to vote as an American citizen.

Can immigrants vote in U.S. elections?

For non-US citizens, however, such as Legal Permanent Residents (green card holders), visa holders, Temporary Protected Status recipients, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, and anyone other than a naturalized citizen, the right to vote is much more complicated.

There are certain situations in which undocumented residents can vote in elections, such as the case of the sanctuary city of San Francisco. In November of 2016, the city passed Proposition N, a charter amendment that allows undocumented residents to be privy to certain rights normally reserved solely for American citizens, including a chance to vote in certain local elections. However, registering to vote may leave undocumented persons vulnerable to enforcement by immigration officials, as their names become public record on the voting registrar.

The state of Maryland is also widely known for allowing non-US citizens to vote in the statewide elections.

In the city of Boston, the City Council is currently exploring the possibility of giving voting rights to the immigrant population for local elections. This measure would allow all immigrants the chance to vote in local elections, including Legal Permanent Residents (green card holders), visa holders, Temporary Protected Status recipients, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. This would only apply to local elections within the city, as it is still illegal under state and federal law for non-naturalized citizens to participate in federal elections.

With these few rare cities as the exception, unless you are a naturalized citizen of the United States, you do not have the right to vote in federal primary and general elections. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires that anyone seeking to register to vote must present valid, government-issued identification and verify that they are a naturalized citizen. Due to the issuance of driver’s licenses and state-identification to non-US citizens by certain states and sanctuary cities, it is possible for an immigrant to register to vote.

The risks of illegally voting in elections

Voting illegally as a non-naturalized United States citizen can have dire consequences. If the courts determine that an undocumented person voted illegally, they could be facing steep fines and up to one year in jail for what amounts to a second-degree felony offense.

What’s even worse, is if immigration authorities discover that you voted unlawfully, they may deny your immigration case, and you may even face deportation.  The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 imposes strict penalties. If an immigrant votes or even registers to vote in the United States, this can be considered a “false claim to citizenship.” The INA was amended in 1996 to note that any votes cast by non-US immigrants are “inadmissible” and considered a “deportable” offense.

If you are considering whether or not to vote in your state or local elections as a non-US citizen, be sure to check with the state and local authorities to ensure that you are eligible to vote and will not face any consequences for registering to vote.

Person holding an Official Election Mail

Voting abroad as a U.S. citizen

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, also known as the UOCAVA, was enacted by Congress in 1986. This law was passed specifically to support several groups of American citizens:

  • Uniformed members of the United States Uniformed Services and merchant marines;
  • Their family members;
  • Any United States citizens residing overseas or outside of the United States.

If you are an American expatriate living abroad in another country and you are 18 years or older, in most cases you are still eligible to cast a vote via absentee ballot for federal office candidates in the United States primary and general elections. Local and state elections are a different story, and the laws vary from state to state.

To qualify to vote abroad, the United States citizen must fill out a Federal Post Card Application, and once their eligibility is confirmed, they will receive an absentee ballot by mail. The requirements to be eligible to vote in the United States include:

  • Must be 18 years of age or older
  • Must be a United States citizen at the time of voter registration
  • Has not been convicted of a felony.

A new Federal Post Card Application must be submitted every year, and it must be received at least 45 days before an election. If the voter has applied to receive an absentee ballot but has not received the ballot by Election Day, they may use the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, which is available online

Find out more information about voting abroad as a U.S. citizen here.

Voting is a huge part of democracy and every vote matters. Whether you are an immigrant or a US citizen, every human is endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the right to vote.