Most Americans can vote in the 2012 presidential election simply by going to a polling place in their neighborhoods. But for U.S. citizens outside our borders - whether they're serving in the U.S. military, on work assignments or living in retirement abroad - voting can be a lot more difficult. They've often been forced to obtain multiple notarized documents to cast their ballots, and whether their votes even arrived to be counted was dependent on often-capricous international mail service.
And that's important, because while the precise number of voters outside U.S. borders remains elusive, there are a lot more of them than most of us realize. In 2008, according to an analysis by Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, there are nearly 5 million eligible voters overseas - about 2.2 percent of the roughly 213 million voters who cast ballots.
What's more, as National Public Radio has reported, hundreds of thousands of other ballots requested by service members for the 2008 elections ended up not being counted, either because they weren't sent in or arrived too late. And in a hotly contested race - as the 2000 Presidential election demonstrated - votes cast overseas might well end up deciding the outcome.
Fortunately, recent reforms promise to make overseas voting at least a little easier and more reliable than in the past. In 2009, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. The law eliminates notarization requirements, requires states to offer ballots electronically to overseas military and civilian voters and mandates that votes be counted even if they arrive up to 45 days after the election date. (There is also at least one new downside: The law requires overseas voters to re-register for every federal election.)
If you're an overseas voter, you can get step-by-step information on how to register, request a ballot and cast your vote at the website of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). You'll be asked to indicate whether you are a military or a civilian voter, and then to click on your home state on a U.S. map; you'll then see more-detailed information on the state's deadlines and voting requirements. (In Maryland, for example, you need to register by Oct. 16 and have your ballot postmarked by Nov. 16 for your vote to be counted.) Generally, you have to print and mail your ballot to election officials in your state, although some states allow you to send it by email or fax.
FVAP also offers a comprehensive instruction manual on how to vote overseas, which you can download as a PDF. You can get additional advice or help from the nonpartisan Overseas Vote Foundation. VotefromAbroad.org also offers an online primer on the overseas voting process. -Patrick J. Kiger