Offshore voting gets assist from the Web

Offshore voting in the presidential election got a boost from online access to data and ballots

The number of votes from overseas cast in last week's presidential election more than doubled from 2004, according to the Military Postal Service Agency, with more than half a million voted ballots delivered to local officials. The offshore vote was aided by intensive online programs hosted by the Federal Voting Assistance Program and independent organizations.

'For the online world, overseas and military voting took some major steps forward in 2008 with more services available online than ever before,' said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and chief executive officer of the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF). 'Any voter searching on the Internet for help with overseas or military voting would have found it. Even the campaigns were using the OVF systems to provide full services to overseas and military voters.'

The OVF Web site, which hosts a suite of tools to help U.S. voters overseas to navigate local election requirements, had 4.5 million visitors this year and registered nearly 90,000 voters.

A handful of Florida residents who live in Europe and Japan got to cast ballots online in a pilot program operated by Okaloosa County. Ninety-three registered Okaloosa County voters stationed overseas cast their ballots online at kiosk stations set up in Ramstein, Germany; Mildenhall, United Kingdom; and Kadena, Japan.

Despite the increased participation, the ballots cast still represent only a small fraction of eligible voters living overseas or stationed away from their hometowns. The size of the overseas U.S. voting population is not known precisely, but estimates go as high as 7 million.

'Unfortunately, from my perspective a lot of the old persistently problematic issues remain and continued to trip up many a voter,' Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

Common problems reported to OVF included:
  • Late ballots.
  • Unexpected witness or notary requirements on ballots.
  • Confusing instructions or requirements.
  • Improper ballots, such as sample or write-in ballots, being sent to overseas voters.
  • Voters waiting too long before using the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot available online.

'And a long, long list of other things,' Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. OVF is conducting a survey of overseas voters and has received 19,000 responses to date.

The Election Assistance Commission, which operates the Federal Voting Assistance Program, also is compiling Election Day data from state voting officials, who are supposed to deliver data to the commission in 90 days of the election.

The applications hosted by OVF were created with help from a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust's Make Voting Work initiative and the JEHT Foundation to encourage participation in elections by service members living abroad or away from home in this country, or Americans living overseas. The Obama and McCain campaigns in the close, fiercely fought presidential race incorporated OVF sites in their efforts to get the vote out. In addition to its own site and those used by the campaigns, both political parties and a number of states also used OVF online services to provide information and forms for voter registration, downloadable federal absentee ballots and discount rates on expressing voted ballots to home precincts.

About 10,000 absentee ballots were delivered to local election officials through the OVF Express Your Vote program, which offered free or discounted Federal Express service from 89 countries.

The Okaloosa Distance Balloting Project put a handful of kiosk computers, staffed by trained poll workers, at locations near U.S. military facilities in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan to enable as many as 900 voters to cast absentee ballots via a virtual private network. The county is home to a number of military bases, with 20,000 of the service members and families registered to vote in the county currently stationed overseas.

The pilot was the initial project of the Operation Bring Remote Access to Voters Overseas Foundation, whose goal is to establish reliable electronic alternatives to paper-and-mail absentee voting for Americans overseas in time for the 2016 presidential election. Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Pat Hollarn, who started the program, said she was frustrated with modest efforts in past election years to correct difficulties overseas voters have in receiving and casting ballots via mail. Pilot programs at the federal level that tried combinations of e-mailed and faxed ballots have not resulted in a working program, she said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has said he plans to offer legislation in the next Congress to provide funding to states and counties to conduct their own absentee voting pilots. A similar measure was passed in 2001 calling for a Defense Department Internet voting program, which was canceled in 2004 after numerous delays.

However, there is a downside to online voting assistance, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.
'We noticed that once voters get online, they assume that everything is online,' she said. 'It doesn't matter what the instructions say.'

Directions to 'download and print and mail your signed original registration form' were ignored by many voters. Reminder e-mails go unread or are blocked by spam filters.

'The long and the short of it is that some voters end up noticing too late that they ignored all messages to take the final action of pen, envelope and stamp,' Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. 'OVF will work to develop a better system for informing them in advance. We were sorry to hear from some unhappy voters who only checked with us on Election Day or after to complain.' On the other hand, 'were voters wrong to think that if one part of the equation is online, the other should be too?'

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