If you look at the rest of the developed world, voter turnout in the United States is low, according to the Pew Research Center. Among 35 of its closest peers, the U.S. ranks 31st in voter turnout, according to a graph that charts voting data from around the world. That's not so great. Countries like Turkey, Belgium and Australia all rank at the top of the list — but voting in those places is compulsory.
But to increase participation, we could make it easier to register to vote. Currently only about 65 percent of the people who are able to vote in the U.S. are even registered. Although there is good news: of those who are registered, about 84 percent get to the polls.
One notable exception to those stats is Americans who live (or are traveling) abroad. Only about 12 percent of that group (the size of which isn't available, but it's estimated to be between 2 and 8 million) participate in elections. One reason for that very low number is that it's notoriously difficult to register to vote while abroad, and to get the needed paperwork on time (and then return it). Another reason is that if you are living outside the U.S., you might not be as connected to and up-to-date on American elections.
While it's the responsibility of any ex-pat or traveler to keep up with what's going on back home, some groups are trying to address the logistics issue by making it easier to register. An organization called Avaaz has put together a tool that makes registering to vote much more straightforward by streamlining the process. You simply register at this page, and then you'll get an email instructing you to "fill out the short form, download the PDF, then print it and send it to your state's elections office. We'll guide you through each simple step!" Avaaz promises.
Avaaz also heartily (and repeatedly) suggests that you share the information with other ex-pats you know to increase participation.
Your vote counts (if it's on time)
Whatever your political persuasion — and wherever you live — your vote matters. We've seen plenty of close races in recent years, so those millions of Americans who live abroad could definitely help decide an election — but only if they get their ballots in on time.
I speak from experience: In 2000, I voted via absentee ballot while I was traveling throughout Australia. I was on Frazier Island off Australia's east coast, and it took an extra 24 hours to get the election results, which was partially because they were contested, but partially due to the remoteness of our location. I'll never forget riding in the back of a truck with a coterie of Aussies, Brits and a couple Swedes and attempting to explain the electoral college to them — which they found very confusing. As I bumped along a sandy road and the non-Americans around me tried to make sense of the electoral college idea, I thought about how my vote, from so far away, could maybe influence the outcome. (They were, at that point, counting every last vote, as you may remember.)
Speaking of influence, your window for participating is growing short if you're living abroad and want to vote in the 2016 election, so get online and get those forms sent in pronto. And keep in mind, if you don't receive your ballot by Oct. 8, you can use the backup Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot.