You don't have much representation in the USA when you live elsewhere, but you still have the right to vote–most importantly, you can vote in Presidential elections. But to do so, you can't wait until the last minute. You have to act well in advance. Hop to it so you can vote in the next election!
As an American living abroad, you get some special deductions and offsets that are supposed to prevent you from being double-taxed on income. (Those don't always work, a subject for entire books.) But you have to file tax returns and pay income tax in both the country where you live and the USA, and you are still subject to a lot of USA laws in addition to the laws where you live. Voting is your chance to have a say in who makes and enforces USA laws.
Start by Registering and Requesting a Ballot
Remember to Allow for Postal Delays
You need an absentee ballot to vote from abroad. Requesting one has become less confusing in recent years. You can now go to one government-sponsored website to request a ballot. Click the link near the end of this module to go to the website. The first click you make specifies whether you are abroad with the military (as a soldier or a soldier's family) or abroad on your own.
The last state and county where you were legally resident before moving abroad is the place you should specify as your voting jurisdiction when you register to vote and request an absentee ballot. As an example of how that works, I left the USA from one state after seeing my mother through an operation. It is not the state where I vote because I was there a week or two less than the length of time necessary to claim legal residency there.
Fill in the blanks. The website will ask for your full name, date of birth, gender, Social Security number and some contact information. There are many ways for an absentee ballot to hit a snag, and providing the optional contact information gives you a better chance of sorting out problems in time to get your vote recorded. If you want to vote in the primary election, specify your political party affiliation. If you only want to vote in the general election, you need not specify a political party. (Note: If you have never received a Social Security number, mark the box on the website that says you have no SSN.)
When asked for your voting address, fill in the last address in the USA where you were legally resident before moving abroad. This is used to determine exactly which elections you are entitled to vote in.
When asked for your mailing address, fill in your current address abroad. If you will mail your ballot back to the USA from abroad, mark the appropriate box. (Ballots sent via FPO/APO addresses or diplomatic pouches don't count as being mailed from abroad.)
One of the best features of the way this is done now is the option to request electronic (email or online) delivery of your ballot. Not every jurisdiction can do it, but if it is available and your antispam filter will not reject it, this can make the difference between getting to vote and not getting to vote.
When you finish filling in the form on the website, it will provide you with two PDF files. Print one on paper and the other (the address where your request needs to go) on an envelope.
Note: Check everything on the form before printing. It's a smart PDF file, so you can correct your information directly on it. The PDF will also allow you to change your ballot delivery preference to Fax if you wish, which the website doesn't ask you about. After printing, sign and date the ballot request form in front of a witness. Then the witness should sign and date it–some states require that–before it is ready to mail.
Where to Get Help
USA Federal Voting Assistance Program: Point, click and fill in blanks–much easier than the old method of figuring out which local voter registration office you should contact and making your way through their procedures. The website does not submit your ballot request for you. It puts together the ballot request, which you have to print and mail, and it provides the address where you should send the ballot request.
Keep Track of Ballot Progress
Don't expect everything to go like clockwork.
In 2008, the election office I have to use would only provide absentee ballots by paper mail. They waited until 4 weeks before the election to send ballots to people abroad. They sent the ballots via surface mail, which takes 8 weeks to get here. This policy is justified by saying they have to treat all absentee voters equally. They don't send absentee ballots via air mail to people who are away from home but inside the USA, so voters overseas can't get ballots sent via air mail.
After I finally got them to acknowledge my ballot was AWOL, they were only willing to send a replacement ballot via surface mail, even after I offered my Federal Express account number. At last they said if I got someone to physically stop by and pick up my ballot, the person I sent could ship it to me using my Fed Ex account. I got someone to do that.
By the time I received the ballot, Fed Ex was unwilling to accept my shipment of my completed ballot because it was officially after the deadline for guaranteed delivery in time to be counted in the election. I got Fed Ex to accept it by saying it was simply a document.
It cost me over $200 to cast my vote, and my ballot got delivered to the election office less than 24 hours before the cutoff to be counted in the election.
The first ballot they mailed to me arrived after Thanksgiving.
The election commission I have to use is now able to send ballots via email. For obvious reasons, that's how I requested it this year, and I made an appropriate whitelist entry in my antispam filter to allow it to come through.
When you use the FVAP website to fill out a ballot request, jot down the election dates and deadlines it shows you. Mark your calendar with them. Then count backward from each of them, accounting for postal delays, and mark your calendar with the dates when you need to make sure your ballot is in the mail. Chase down any problems before those dates!
Note: Check the page layout of your emailed ballot before printing. The people who send out email ballots inexplicably think the entire world uses USA paper sizes. You probably have a stash of USA letter sized paper because a lot of agencies (especially tax authorities) require that size. But my 2012 ballot for November required USA legal sized paper! If I shrank it to fit on letter sized or A4, that could void my ballot. The solution, if you have the same problem, is to find someone with an A3 printer and print it at USA legal size on the oversized paper, then cut it down to 8 1/2 by 14 inches.