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The ABCs of voting in U.S. elections

  • 2008-02-06
  • By Steve Roman

TALLINN - This is a contest you don't want to miss, and the race is narrowing: On the Republican side, John McCain and Mitt Romney now look to be the last two real contenders for their party's nomination, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling it out for the Democratic ticket.

Interest in this year's Nov. 4 U.S. presidential election is sky high, not just among Americans themselves, but among pretty much everyone on the planet. It's a close race, and the first one since anyone can remember where there hasn't been a presidential or vice-presidential incumbent. Add to that the very likely prospect of Americans electing their first woman or black president, and you've got a recipe for the kind of drama that not even Hollywood could invent.
Though it seems everyone in the Baltics has an opinion about who they would like to see take over from George W., only U.S. citizens can vote, and U.S. embassies in this region are making sure they can do just that. 

As part of that effort, the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn recently invited The Baltic Times to meet with Consul Rodger Deuerlein and other embassy officials to talk about what U.S. citizens need to do to register and vote, and how the embassies can help in the voting process.

The 'how to' guide

The embassy's main message is register and do it soon. Even with Super Tuesday already passed there may even be time to vote in some of the state primaries 's the elections held in the early part of the year to  decide who will be on the Democratic and Republican tickets.

"People overseas get very interested when the general election gets closer and people are sometimes caught unaware with the primaries. We try to get the word out. There's still time for perhaps, not Super Tuesday, but for some of the later primaries, and there's certainly time to register for the general election," said Deuerlein.
Step one, explained Tracy Enkema, a voting assistant at the embassy, is to register to vote absentee if you're not registered already. To do that you should drop by your embassy to fill out what's called a Federal Post Card Application. The embassy will mail it for you free of charge.
Enkema recommended that citizens who want to vote in their state's primary get them in quickly, since the process can take 30 - 45 days.

Once you're registered, your county will send you the absentee ballot in the mail. Expect a package to arrive with a voting card, instructions and a return envelope.
By way of example, Deuerlein showed an absentee ballot from a California primary. The instructions were simple and straightforward, and might have been written by the same people who came up with standardized tests for school kids.

"'Use blue or black, do not punch holes in the paper."
"This is a non-chad ballot," he joked, alluding to the infamous, controversy-ridden Florida vote from 2000.
Once you have filled it out and sealed it, you can bring it in to the embassy for them to mail for free (do this at least three weeks before election day), or just send it through regular mail.
If things somehow go awry and you don't receive your absentee ballot in time, says Deuerlein, you can contact the embassy for help.

"If people are duly registered and for some reason they haven't gotten their real election materials, we have something called a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot. This is an emergency ballot ... They get counted if you are registered," he said.
More information is available on the embassies' Web sites in Estonia (www.usemb.ee), Latvia (www.usembassy.lv), and Lithuania (www.usembassy.lt). Even more detailed voting instructions, and information about primaries, can be found on the Federal Voting Assistance Program's site: www.fvap.gov.
Tracy Enkema emphasized that the embassies are there to help, and those with questions should get in touch with their embassy's consular department. As a last piece of advice, she once again recommended not putting things off.

"I would want to get the word out that people shouldn't wait until the last minute so they have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote," she said. "Sooner is always better than later."