RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A lot of us here in the U.S. have seven more weeks, or seven more weeks minus a day, before we have to vote in this year's elections. But for an estimated six million Americans living overseas or serving in the military, deadlines to get and cast a ballot are rapidly approaching. And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some might have already missed their chance.
PAM FESSLER: Kelly McBride has lived and voted from Latin America on and off for about 20 years, and it hasn't 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.
Ms. KELLY MCBRIDE (Overseas Voter): 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.
FESSLER: Which costs her about a hundred dollars and takes some meticulous planning. That's how McBride voted in 2004 from Ecuador. She assumes her ballot was counted, but isn't sure.
Ms. MCBRIDE: I hope so, because I've really gone to a lot of efforts to do it.
FESSLER: It's never been easy for Americans overseas to vote, and the numbers are striking. In 2006, only a third of the one 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.
Mr. MICHAEL CAUDELL-FEAGAN (Director, Make Voting Work, Pew Center on the States): When will your ballot be mailed to you? Well, that's going to depend upon your state. 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.
FESSLER: 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 September 30.
Mr. CAUDELL-FEAGAN: But less than half our states, 24, even have absentee ballots available by September 30.
FESSLER: 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 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.
Secretary BETH CHAPMAN (Secretary of State, Alabama): Some states can fax. They can email. 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.
FESSLER: She says it's especially difficult for military voters who are constantly on the move.
Ms. CHAPMAN: A huge percentage of overseas military ballots come back to us for incorrect addresses.
FESSLER: Efforts are being made to fix things. Kelly 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. Director Polly Brunelli says the postal service has agreed to speed up ballot delivery to and from overseas. And while efforts to try Internet voting have largely stalled, some states do allow emailed ballots. Brunelli says voters can also use a write-in ballot for presidential and congressional races if they don't get the regular one on time.
Ms. PAULINE BRUNELLI (Director, Federal Voting Assistance Program): So no matter where the voter is around the world, they can download the federal write-in absentee ballot from our Web site and send that into their local election official.
FESSLER: Another group goes further. The nonprofit Overseas Vote Foundation says 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 were often rejected in the past.
Ms. SUSAN DZIEDUSZYCKA-SUINAT (Director, Overseas Vote Foundation): They weren't filled out properly. The candidate names were wrong. They weren't sent to the right address. They were too late.
FESSLER: So this year, her group has 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.
Ms. DZIEDUSZYCKA-SUINAT: 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.
FESSLER: Like everyone else, she thinks the turnout this year could be huge. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.