Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 30.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 30. Alex Brandon/AP

Lawmaker Urges State to Ease Voting for Feds Overseas

The pandemic may disrupt normal procedures for federal employees voting from abroad, committee chairman warns.

House Democrats are pressuring the State Department to help federal personnel stationed overseas vote, saying the agency plays a key role in ensuring those Americans are not disenfranchised. 

The stakes for State are elevated, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a letter to the department’s Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic that has “disrupted many of the international transport links” typically utilized by overseas voters. Federal personnel at embassies and consulates in locations without “functioning or reliable mail systems” especially depend on State to facilitate ballot delivery, Engel noted. 

The chairman called on the department to ensure overseas personnel—and, where appropriate, all American citizens abroad—can use the unclassified diplomatic pouch system to send ballots to their home states. Diplomats use the pouch system to transport official documents and correspondence, and typically utilize the unclassified version of it for U.S. elections. Many normal international mail and courier services have been disrupted by the pandemic, Engel said, making it more important for State to redouble its efforts. He urged the department to create backup plans in case the pouch system becomes unavailable in some areas, including by reaching out to host countries and air transportation contractors. 

He said the department should boost its communications to staff and other federal workers overseas, as well as to non-government U.S. citizens abroad, to notify them of deadlines and procedures for returning ballots. Engel also encouraged State to allow Americans to visit diplomatic missions that closed due to COVID-19 concerns to drop off their ballots to be returned to the U.S. 

Engel praised State for providing regular updates to his committee, through its Bureau of Consular Affairs and Bureau of Administration, on the steps the department has taken so far. Still, he encouraged ongoing briefings and confirmation that State is “taking all possible steps” to support the return of ballots for those overseas. 

State works with the U.S. Postal Service and the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program to help federal personnel and U.S. citizens around the world vote in domestic elections. 

State did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether it planned to comply with Engel’s requests.