Casting ballots from afar


Miranda Bridgwater used Twitter and her family to keep up with the election while studying abroad in Florence, Italy. | Courtesy of Miranda Bridgewater

Of about 25,000 Pitt students that are eligible to vote in this election, 74 percent might not be voting at the polls if they registered with their permanent address.

Although students can register with their Pittsburgh address, only 26 percent of the students on Pitt’s Oakland campus are from Allegheny County. Nearly 37 percent of students on the Oakland campus are from out of state, according to the 2016 Pitt Factbook.

Out-of-county students who registered to vote using their hometown address must request a mail-in ballot at least a week before Election Day or travel home to vote in-person. Whether students are voting from across the state or across an ocean, traveling home for one day in the middle of the week can be tough.

If these students didn’t change their registration address and didn’t submit absentee ballots, nearly 19,000 votes — including graduates and undergraduates — would be lost from Pitt’s main campus alone.

Rachel Mueller, a junior accounting and finance major, who is studying at Pitt this semester registered to vote in her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Instead of changing her registration to her current Pittsburgh address, she decided to print an online application for an absentee ballot.

“In general, it’s your civic duty to participate in elections,” Mueller said. “I thought it was important for my voice to be heard, even if it meant putting in a little bit of extra work.”

According to the U.S. Census, in the 2012 presidential election, more than 46 million voters cast ballots in some way other than going to a polling station on Election Day. This includes the 23.3 million people who cast civilian or military absentee ballots, 16.9 million who voted early in-person and 6.3 million who mailed in ballots instead of voting at a precinct.

Among the millions of Americans who won’t be stopping by the polling station are more than 300 Pitt students studying abroad this semester.

Sarah Grossman, a junior studying in Barranquilla, Colombia, said she decided to find out how she could cast her ballot in November as soon as she realized she would be away.

Not everyone is so proactive.

To help out students who might be confused about voting from overseas, Vanessa Sterling, an associate director at the Pitt Study Abroad office, sent an email from the U.S. Department of State about how to contact home voter registration boards and how to vote abroad at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

“The difference this year is that there are far more web-based resources for Americans who are planning to vote from abroad,” Sterling said.

Grossman’s biggest concern was not getting the ballot or not mailing it back in time.

“What kind of sucked was how hard it was with [the] different mail[ing system] and such,” Grossman said. “But that’s just life, I guess … the mail coming from here is really iffy, so I’m just hoping it gets there.”

Miranda Bridgwater, a senior majoring in psychology and sociology, can attest to the legitimacy of Grossman’s concerns.

While Bridgwater was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, during the spring 2016 semester, she tried to vote in the Democratic Pennsylvania primaries.

“I was really excited to take part in my first presidential election,” Bridgewater said. “I tried to stay updated through social media and my mom, because in Europe, especially in Italy, they don’t care about American elections, because they have their own problems to worry about.”

When it came time for Bridgwater to cast her vote, she ran into several problems. She initially received an absentee ballot meant for military personnel. By the time her precinct sent her the right form through the Italian postal service, it was well past the voting deadline.

“It’s frustrating because you would think by now, with the number of people who travel abroad every year, they would have a system in place that didn’t rely on mail,” Bridgwater said.

There are rare circumstances that allow people to submit a vote through email, fax or online, but registered voters can get a ballot via email that they can mail in by contacting the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Besides unreliable mail service, absentee voters also worry about whether the state will consider their ballot valid and if they will really count it in time for the election. Most states only count absentee ballots the day of the election, and all ballots require a signature from the voter for authentication and tamper-free sealing of the envelope.

Gayle Rogers, an English professor at Pitt, said he did not have an easy voting experience abroad. Originally from Tupelo, Mississippi, he sent in his ballot from Perth, Australia, where he was studying aboriginal literature at Vanderbilt University.

Rogers wrote a letter to the the secretary of state from Mississippi and, two weeks later, received a ballot in the mail.

But on Election Day, in one of the most controversial races in recent history — George W. Bush versus Al Gore — he said his ballot probably didn’t count.

“Absentee ballots used to be counted only when races were within a margin smaller than the total number of absentee ballots, and Bush won Mississippi by a landslide,” Rogers said.

According to a statement on, it is a common misconception that absentee ballots only count in close races. But since they are still being counted days after the election, a winner is usually announced beforehand, which makes absentee ballots coming from a distance seem, as Rogers said, meaningless.

This is an election that could decide if the next president of the United States is the first woman or the first candidate since Reagan to be elected president after a career not primarily in politics — either way, it’s going to be historic.

But Bridgwater doesn’t agree that any election is more important than another. Rather, she said, you are using your right to voice your choice — no matter where you are in the world.

“When you’re studying abroad, you get so immersed in the culture you’re studying, sometimes you forget where you came from,” Bridgwater said. “Voting in an election is the one thing you can and should do to remember that.”

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