U.S. troops stationed overseas will be among those most affected by the outcome of November’s presidential race, yet they’ll have to jump through more hoops than the average citizen to have their say in who should win, voting rights advocates say.
“I don’t think military personnel necessarily believe they should be treated differently than the rest of absentee voters, but the current absentee voting system disenfranchises some of them,” said Bob Carey, a Navy reservist and board member of the nonprofit Overseas Vote Foundation.
Though a handful of states allow troops to cast absentee ballots via e-mail, the majority — including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama — require a response through the U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Carey said. Because it can take 30 days for a piece of mail to make it from Iraq to the States, those who are deployed need to start the voting process now, he said.
Unfortunately, most of them don’t even realize it, Mr. Carey said.
HISTORY OF OVERSEAS VOTING RIGHTS
Civilians and military personnel can vote from overseas under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, which was created to improve the registration and voting processes for those citizens. The act consolidated previous laws from 1942, 1955 and 1975. New laws with provisions for overseas voters were signed in 2001, 2002 and 2004 as a result of controversy over 2000 presidential election ballots from Florida. Additional proposed improvements have been introduced in Congress this year but have yet to pass.
Source: Congressional Research Service, U.S. Library of Congress
In a study published by the Inspector General for the Department of Defense in 2007, only 40 percent of service members reported receiving voting information from the military during the 2006 general election, and only 33 percent were aware of federal absentee ballot applications.
To better coordinate voter education efforts, the military has appointed a “voting officer” for each of its units. Those officers often must navigate 55 separate sets of voting laws and deadlines — one for each state, plus four territories and the District of Columbia — to figure out which ones apply to his or her troops, Mr. Carey said. This duty usually is assigned on top of the officer’s regular day job, he said.
Capt. Shane Murphy, the voting officer for the Marine Corps Reserve’s “Mike Battery” — a Chattanooga-based unit that has been conducting security patrols in Rutbah, Iraq, since April — said he has made sure that each member of his unit already has filled out an application for an absentee ballot for November.
Now, he wrote in an e-mail, “it is up to the USPS to ensure timely delivery of all ballots.”
The situation at hand
The Marines must mail the application, wait for elections officials to verify registration, then return a blank ballot in the mail, Capt. Murphy said. The ballot must be returned by mail, which can be difficult because federal law requires that ballots arrive no later than 30 days before Election Day, making turnaround time almost nonexistent in many cases, he said.
Tennessee Election Commission officials have recognized the time crunch and have put several measures in place to address it, according to state Election Coordinator Brook Thompson. Among the steps are sending ballots at least 45 days ahead and allowing troops to fax ballot applications back to the States to speed up the process, he said.
Georgia also permits faxed applications, though Alabama does not, according to the Overseas Vote Foundation.
If, for some reason, a service member still doesn’t have time to complete the entire process by mail, he or she can use a federal write-in ballot, said Becky Bumgardner, absentee voting deputy for the Hamilton County Election Commission. The blank forms are available online and through voting officers with each unit, she said.
As long as the voter already has applied for an absentee ballot and the write-in ballot arrives back home by the close of the polls on Election Day, the write-in will count as a vote, Ms. Bumgardner said.
Using e-mail throughout the voting process would increase efficiency even more, according to Mr. Thompson, but a new state law would have to be passed before that could be incorporated into existing protocol. Concerns about ballot secrecy have prevented serious consideration of any such measures in the state Legislature, he said.
“I think we need to explore ways to do things to make it easier for people to vote, especially those overseas,” Mr. Thompson said. “But when you start allowing people to e-mail their votes back and forth, it compromises the security of the ballot ... That’s not to say it can’t be overcome (with technological advances), but it complicates things.”
Michael Caudell-Feagan, a senior officer at Pew Center on the States, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research institution, said his organization has launched a “multi-year campaign” to make voting easier and more streamlined for civilians and military members living overseas.
Unfortunately, these “are not a significant part of anyone’s electorate, and they’re widely dispersed, so they’re easy to forget about,” he said.
A study released last year by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that, although at least 992,034 overseas ballots were requested by civilians and military personnel for the 2006 election, only 330,000 of them actually were cast or counted. More than 70 percent of the uncounted ballots were rejected because they were returned as undeliverable, according to the study, while 10 percent arrived past deadline.
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., cites these figures as support for the Military Voting Protection Act of 2008, which he is cosponsoring this year to address the issue. The bill seeks to expedite the collection and delivery of overseas troops’ ballots by using Express Mail providers and by examining more possibilities in electronic ballot transmission.
“There is no question our service members serving overseas, who are defending our freedom and values, deserve an efficient and secure voting mechanism to ensure that they are able to participate and be represented in our electoral process,” Sen. Chambliss said.
The bill has been read and referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
A similar measure is floating in the House of Representatives, and on July 8 House Republican Whip Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri issued a resolution calling for action on the matter. By and large, Democrats appear not to have latched onto the issue, and the bill has languished in the House Committee on Administration, records show.
The Pew Center isn’t going to wait for action from Congress, according to Mr. Caudell-Feagan. Having concluded that state and federal response so far has been unsatisfactory, the organization in November helped launch a “Turbo Tax-style” Web site for the Overseas Vote Foundation to guide citizens through the voting process from abroad, he said.
Troops can input personal information and the site will help complete all necessary forms and meet all necessary deadlines, Mr. Caudell-Feagan said, helping to avoid mistakes that would discount a ballot.
The organization also plans to lobby for more uniformity among state voting laws in hopes of fixing most glitches by the next election cycle, he said.
But Lt. Col. Les’ Melnyk, a spokesman for the Pentagon, says it is not that simple. Though the military encourages states to transition as much of the registration process as possible to electronic media, he said, “we understand that the elections are run by the states. You cannot impose uniformity at a federal level. It’s un-American.”
For now, Lt. Col. Melnyk said, the military must expend its energy on giving the troops education campaigns, which are disseminated on military television and through the voting officers. The government also ensures that ballots are a priority in the mail, he said.
“They’re the first on, first off (the plane),” he said.
However, the Department of Defense really is not sure how effective these efforts have been, Lt. Col. Melnyk admitted, because it has yet to produce a study accurately measuring voting interest among service members.
A total of 64 percent of those 18 and over voted in the 2004 presidential election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A 2004 military-sponsored study showed that 73 percent of all troops overseas were voting, but the Government Accountability Office since has discredited that number as inflated.
The Election Assistance Commission found in its study that less than 17 percent of the 6 million citizens eligible to vote overseas chose to do so in 2006, though that figure includes both civilians and military personnel.
The Defense Department plans to conduct a more carefully engineered survey for the upcoming election, according to Lt. Col. Melnyk.
Capt. Murphy said he believes the turnout will be strong among those serving abroad, even with all the extra steps citizens overseas must take to cast their ballots.
“I think the percentage of people with the military voting overseas will be slightly higher than the percentage of people voting back home,” he said. “I feel that the type of person who volunteers to put him or herself in this line of work has an inherent sense of responsibility that causes him to vote and take more pride in the system of government than your average citizen.”