Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=80819
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 12:51:19 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- From missing ballots to complex absentee procedures to poor recordkeeping, military voting has been plagued with an intricate web of complications. This year there is increased attention on making military voting easier and addressing impediments that surfaced during the 2004 and 2006 elections.
In a heated election year, and one in which candidates tout the military’s fate in Iraq as a key issue, uniformed voters overseas have much at stake in making their voices heard.
But the system is riddled with obstacles.
Uniformed citizens serving abroad must vote by absentee ballot, just as any other out-of-state citizen would. But the lengthy back-and-forth process of mailing in an absentee application, receiving a ballot and mailing it back to a state Board of Elections is elongated by the distance and hardship circumstances of service members at war.
Individual states can decide whether to ease the process by adding electronic options. These range from permitting faxes of completed ballots to allowing e-mail absentee application requests. But the states weave a complex latticework of differing procedures and allowances, which are often difficult to navigate from abroad.
Only 17 states and territories permit the e-mailing of absentee documents from military voters overseas, according to voter information published by the individual Boards of Elections. Yet even within these states there is a significant range of constraints. Some require scanned signatures, others require a mailed hard copy of the application to follow the electronic submission, still others will allow for e-mailed ballot requests but not e-mailed voting.
Still, allowing electronic transmissions has eased the process of voting from abroad. In both 2000 and 2004, the Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program sponsored post-election surveys to gauge military voter participation. From the random samples of more than 15,000 uniformed citizens, the voting rate showed a jump from 57 percent of registered military voters casting ballots in the 2000 presidential election to 73 percent in 2004.
“There are some indicators that the increased numbers in 2004 were attributed to states’ making it easier to vote absentee,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Right now we continue to promote electronic alternatives, but it’s all based on what the state is prepared to offer.”
Almost all states and territories allow some form of fax transmission, though again there is a wide range of conditions under which they will permit these submissions. But there are four—Guam, Alabama, New York and Wyoming—that don’t allow electronic submissions of any kind.
“The reason we don’t have electronic transmissions is that a law has never been passed to allow it,” said Adam Thompson, an Alabama state election official. “We don’t make the laws, we simply follow them.”
Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman has been pushing for legislation to allow electronic submissions, but last year’s bill was unsuccessful in the state legislature. “There has been another bill introduced,” said Thompson. “We have currently one of the highest military populations per capita, so we definitely have a vested interest in it.”
But the problem extends beyond the difficulties of facilitating the absentee process. States often keep minimal records of military voting as well—making it hard to assess just how effective or deficient the system is.
There are no complete records kept of either voter registration or turnout numbers among the military.
In 2004, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission conducted a survey under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), in which, for the first time, it requested state voting records regarding the number of uniformed citizens who voted absentee. The states returned minimal information.
“In 2004, the UOCAVA stuff was terrible, absolutely terrible,” said Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services, a private company commissioned by the government to conduct the report. Several states, including Alabama and Tennessee, provided essentially no data. The majority provided rough totals for absentee ballots received without separating out any information regarding military voters in particular.
But the states are not wholly to blame. “The problem states have with getting UOCAVA data is, they don’t really know if someone is a military person or not,” Brace said. “There’s nothing on any forms that people need to check off to say they’re in the military.”
This makes it difficult for state Boards of Elections to tease apart the different absentee ballots they receive. The task is even harder for states that only support the traditional mail-in method, as opposed to electronic transmission procedures that are exclusively available to military personnel.
Of the records that have been kept, the data often exposes flaws within the system. A report released this past fall by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that only 47.6 percent of the absentee ballots requested by service members abroad were even cast or counted for the 2006 midterm elections.
Much of the problem rests in the time constraints created by postal instead of electronic submissions. “There are so many rules and regulations, and that’s very, very hard on a military member,” Thompson said, adding that any misstep in the process results in another lengthy round of back-and-forth mailings between the state and the voter. This often leads to incomplete ballots or ones that are received beyond the cut-off date.
The Alabama Board of Elections is addressing such problems caused by lack of electronic transmissions by establishing a secure Web site to walk overseas voters step-by-step through the absentee process as it currently stands. Minnesota and Ohio are the only other states currently establishing a similar resource. While the forms must still be submitted in hard copy, the goal is to reduce the number of submissions that are incorrectly filled out and thus unnecessarily delayed or discounted.
But Brace said that while state efforts are important, the federal government’s clout is needed to create comprehensive reform in military voting procedures and recordkeeping.
The Department of Defense and its Federal Voting Assistance Program have stepped up to help uniformed citizens as well.
“We have a large network of voting assistance officers. This year the states were moving the primaries, but FVAP planned for that contingency and so we started the workshops earlier, published the voters’ assistance guide earlier,” Withington said. “But ultimately it’s up to the state. It’s all about the delivery.”