The Overseas Vote by Mail Experience: Finland and the Philippines

Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently submitted my ballot for the upcoming Finnish parliamentary election, and in 2022, I had voted in the Philippine general elections. In both cases, I voted as an overseas voter, by mail. As one of the undoubtedly tiny number of people who has participated in both of these systems, I figured I should share my experiences and thoughts about each one!

Philippine Overseas Voting by Mail

In order to vote overseas as a citizen of the Philippines, you first have to register as an overseas voter, by visiting an embassy, consulate, or other approved registration center abroad. The registration basically consists of showing proof of citizenship – there isn’t anything complicated about it. You have the option of voting by mail or voting in person at authorized sites (like the aforementioned embassies and consulates). As long as you do not skip 2 elections in a row, or move to a different region, your voter registration remains active, and you do not need to re-register.

As an overseas mail voter, you receive your ballot from, and return your ballot to, the consulate in the region where you live. At those locations, it is then tabulated, under the scrutiny of accredited poll watchers and members of the media. There are online tools for mail voters to check whether or not their mail ballots were returned-to-sender, and overseas mail voters always have the option to vote in-person if it works better for them.

The ballot that you receive is similar to ones which I have used as a mail voter for elections here in the United States. (You can see what the ballot for each region of the country looks like, including the one for overseas voters, at this page.) In each section, you fill in the requisite number of bubbles in ink, to vote for your desired candidates. The ballot is then returned in a plain envelope to the local consulate, before the 30 day overseas voting period expires. It’s very straightforward and uncomplicated.

Turnout for overseas voters in the 2022 national elections, to my untrained eye, seems quite good. Approximately 1.7 million eligible registered overseas voters tallied around 660,000 votes, for a turnout rate of around 40%. In contrast, US overseas citizens had an estimated turnout rate of only 7.8% in the 2020 election.

Finnish Overseas Voting by Mail

Finnish overseas mail voters must order their ballots anew for each election. The registration, in this case, opened up roughly 3 months before the in-person election date. In theory, you have a roughly 30-day voting period to vote, but in practice, the window for voting is actually a lot shorter. The first reason is that ballots are mailed from Finland, starting 30 days before the election (when candidates and their ballot numbers are finalized), and it may take some time for them to reach you. Similarly, your ballot must be returned to your municipality of record in Finland, which could take quite some time to deliver, unless you opt for (expensive) international express delivery, on your own dime. I would estimate that this leaves a window of roughly a week, for an overseas voter to receive their ballot, decide how they are going to vote, and to send it back off to Finland to be recorded. That’s not a lot of time!

The ballot for the parliamentary election is comically simple. You only vote for a single candidate, from a list based on the electoral district of your municipality in Finland. Most districts have 100-250 candidates on the ballot, with Uusimaa tipping the scales at a whopping 485 candidates. So your ballot is literally a folded piece of paper, with a circle on it, where you write the candidate number of the person for whom you are voting. There is no machine-readable bubble form, showing candidate names – you simply copy the number from the candidate list, then seal your ballot inside a small blue envelope.

Once you have done that, then you need to fill out a form certifying the authenticity and validity of your ballot, which must be cosigned by two witnesses. (The witnesses cannot be a spouse, child, or parent of the voter – strangely, other familial relations appear to be OK. There is no requirement for the witnesses to be Finnish citizens.) The form, for which you need to manually write in the correct municipal election office address, then goes into another envelope, along with the blue ballot envelope. Drop it in the mail, and hope that you did it in time for it to get to Finland, before the voting deadline passes.

Overseas voters also have the option to vote at specific voting stations abroad, during a short early voting period.

The turnout numbers for the most recent parliamentary election in 2019 do not break out mail versus in-person votes for overseas voters, but the turnout rate for the ~250,000 eligible overseas voters stands at only 12.6% . This comes out to a little less than 32,000 votes.

Comparisons and Conclusions

Overall, the Philippine overseas voting experience was significantly more voter-friendly than the Finnish one, and I think this is reflected in the much higher turnout rate for overseas Filipinos. Using a pre-printed optical scan ballot, and using local, in-country embassies and consulates as the point of ballot distribution and collection, makes it a lot easier for voters to participate in elections. I suspect that the rules around keeping active overseas voter registrations valid, as long as you continue to participate, also promotes higher turnout, as there is less of an opportunity to forget to register and accidentally miss out on voting. The level of transparency and overall promotion of the process by COMELEC and the consulates abroad is commendable, and I will be happy to participate in elections again in the future.

Finnish elections, on the other hand, have some work to do to make overseas voter participation by mail easier. The witness requirements for postal ballots in Finland seems unhelpful and antiquated, and unlikely to improve election security in any meaningful way. The timeframe with which overseas voters wind up to complete their ballots is inadequate, and likely disenfranchises or discourages overseas voters who aren’t actively thinking about elections. It doesn’t seem feasible to extend the mail voter window, or start it earlier, though, without other changes to dates and deadlines in the electoral system, and I would be surprised if this was viewed as big enough of a problem to be worth addressing. In short, I’m pessimistic about the likelihood of big improvements to the current system.

From a practical perspective, the cost for Finland to implement some of the niceties of Philippine overseas voting is likely prohibitively high. Finland has sixfold fewer eligible overseas voters than the Philippines, and it also has a smaller worldwide consular footprint. But, considering that it already has a robust digital identity system for its citizens, supporting smartcard and other authenticated access to many government services (including proposing and voting for citizens’ initiatives), I would hope that authenticated electronic voting for overseas voters is in the works. (Estonia already allows online voting. And yes, I’m aware of many of the security concerns around online voting in general – but I am optimistic that transparency and verifiability concerns can be addressed, given sufficient motivation, effort, and scrutiny.) In the meantime, allowing overseas voters to remain opted-in to automatically receive mail ballots (as long as they are continuing to vote that way) is probably the best, lowest cost way to improve turnout. I will do my best to continue to participate in Finnish elections, but the friction in the current process will continue to irk me.

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