Image: U.S. campaign skullcaps for sale in Jerusalem
Kevin Frayer  /  AP file
A display of yarmulkes at a store in the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem offers versions with the names of the U.S. presidential candidates.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/27/2004 11:55:36 AM ET 2004-10-27T15:55:36

Suppose you're an American voter sitting in Jerusalem, waiting for your absentee ballot to arrive for the Nov. 2 election. There's less than a week to go, and it still hasn't shown up. You're getting nervous. What's a voter to do?

The solution could be found online, in the form of the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, which has just been made available over the Internet.

This isn't a form of electronic voting: You still have to print out the form and mail it in the old-fashioned way. But the little-known FWAB can provide an emergency backup for voters abroad who are worried about getting their regular absentee ballots in time for Election Day.

It's not just a hypothetical concern: In the midst of a high-profile presidential campaign, with overseas voter registration up as much as tenfold, there are a lot of nervous people out there.

"Many Americans abroad have told me that they have tried and failed to get an emergency write-in ballot from the U.S. embassy," the anonymous Webmaster at Electoral-Vote.com reported Friday. "The embassies don't seem to be very helpful."

And indeed, the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, reported in 2001 that military voting assistance officers were undersupplied with the emergency write-in forms — and that some citizens abroad were unaware that the write-in option was even available.

'Last resort'
Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, said the fact that the Department of Defense was posting the FWAB online was "rather significant."

"That's intended to be a last resort for Americans overseas," Chapin told MSNBC.com. "The fact that they're widely distributing it means that more people are going to be needing that last resort than had been anticipated."

Chapin said local election officials were facing a tougher-than-usual job in getting absentee ballots to overseas voters, due to several factors: heightened interest in the presidential election, the substantial U.S. military presence in Iraq and the back-and-forth ballot status of independent candidate Ralph Nader. Some states were even loosening their rules to allow faxed-in and e-mailed absentee ballots, Chapin said.

"If nothing else, the interest in the presidential vote and the election abroad doesn't seem to be matched by accessibility to those ballots," he observed.

Just getting started? It's too late
Having the FWAB online could help address the problem, but if you haven't already requested your absentee ballot through the usual means, it's too late: The special write-in ballot will be accepted only from U.S. citizens whose absentee-ballot applications were received by local election officials 30 days before the election, but who haven't yet gotten that requested ballot for whatever reason.

You can use the form to vote for president as well as for Senate and House seats, and some states will let you enter votes for other offices as well. Be sure to follow the instructions to the letter, including the provisions for a security envelope. The ballot can be sent through military channels, or through an embassy post office. If you're using APO/FPO or the U.S. postal system, you can print out a postage-paid envelope.

If you receive your regular absentee ballot after you've sent in the FWAB, and in time for Election Day, you should fill that out and send it in as well. Be sure to note on the state ballot envelope that you've already submitted an FWAB.

For more information about overseas voting, check the Web sites for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, Republicans Abroad or Democrats Abroad.

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