Most people listening to this report have 48 more days before they vote in this year's elections. But for an estimated 6 million Americans living overseas or serving in the military, deadlines to receive and cast a ballot are rapidly approaching, and some might have already missed the boat.
Kelly McBride has voted from Latin America on and off for about 20 years. Voting has not been easy. Mail delays and complicated rules have forced her to come up with her own system to get a ballot to her home state of Florida.
"I have it sent to my parents' house. They FedEx it to me, so I make sure I get it on time. Then I FedEx it back to them. Then they mail it," she said.
This plan costs her about $100, and it takes some meticulous planning. That's how McBride voted in 2004 from Ecuador. She assumes her ballot was counted, but she isn't sure.
Difficulties Voting Overseas
It's never been easy for Americans living overseas to vote, as the numbers show. In 2006, only a third of the 1 million absentee ballots requested by military and overseas Americans were cast and counted. Michael Caudell-Feagan, of the Pew Center on the States, says every state has different rules.
"When will your ballot be mailed to you? Well, that's going to depend upon your state," he said. "Do you have to have that ballot notarized or an affidavit? It's going to depend on that state. Will your vote be counted? Too often it will depend on that state."
He says some overseas voters — especially those in remote areas or war zones — face almost impossible deadlines. He notes that the military postal service recommended that those stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq mail their completed ballots no later than Sept. 30 — but then says that only 24 states actually have absentee ballots available by that date.
In fact, only California has sent its ballots to overseas and military voters. The other states will send them out in the next two and a half weeks. Beth Chapman is the secretary of state in Alabama, which has some of the toughest requirements, including the need for overseas voters to get two witnesses or a notary to sign their ballots.
"Some states can fax. They can e-mail. They can use FedEx. They can use UPS. But in our state, it's United States Postal Service only. And it's not humanly possible always to get those ballots there and back," she said.
She said it's especially difficult for military voters, who are constantly on the move.
Online Ballots Could Improve Overseas Voting
Efforts are being made to fix things. McBride says Florida now has someone in every county to assist overseas voters. The Defense Department also runs the Federal Voting Assistance Program, for military and civilian voters.
The director of that program, Polly Brunelli, says the Postal Service has agreed to speed up ballot delivery to and from overseas voters. And while efforts to try Internet voting have largely stalled, some states do allow e-mailed ballots. Brunelli says voters can also use a write-in ballot — for presidential and congressional races — if they don't get their regular one on time.
Another group goes further. The nonprofit Overseas Vote Foundation said its Web site allows overseas and military voters to customize their federal write-in ballot to a particular state.
Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, who runs the foundation, says federal write-in ballots are often rejected. So this year, her group has also arranged with FedEx for free or cut-rate delivery of ballots from 89 countries. Dzieduszycka-Suinat says despite the looming deadlines, it's not too late to vote.
"They can get online right now. In 10 minutes they've got their form, the mailing address, the instructions, and they're on their way. And that's what overseas voters should really be doing right now," she said.
Like everyone else, she thinks the turnout this year could be huge.