Lawmakers say DOD program for absentee voters inadequate

DOD program to help absentee voters fails to provide necessary resources, legislators say

A bipartisan group of legislators has warned Defense Secretary Robert Gates that new blood is needed in the troubled Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), which provides online services to help military personnel vote in federal elections.

'FVAP's efforts to date have been wholly inadequate, and the status quo is simply unacceptable,' the senators and congressmen wrote to Gates last week. 'For this reason, a 'promote-from-within' approach to filing this FVAP position would be a disservice to our military voters.'

The current director is Pauline K. Brunelli, a career member of the senior executive service who was appointed in 1999.

The Pentagon intends to make its selection of a new FVAP director this week. The legislators said the hiring process is being unnecessarily rushed, and are seeking assurances that the hiring process complies with civil service laws and that the search will include outside candidates with experience in delivering these services.

'It is incumbent upon us to ensure these Americans have a voice in choosing their elected leaders,' the legislators wrote. 'We urge you to help us protect their rights by ensuring that the incoming FVAP director is not only an individual with substantial subject matter expertise in the relevant areas and a high level of competence, but also someone who can offer fresh approaches and innovative technology-based solutions to the very complex issue of military voting.'

The letter was sent Nov. 25 by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and David Vitter of Louisiana and Democratic Reps. Michael Honda of California and Carolyn B. Maloney of New York.

The FVAP was established by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to help active duty military personnel and their families living away from home and civilians living abroad register to vote and to request and cast absentee ballots. According to a number of studies by the Defense Department inspector general, it has met with limited success, at best. Few military personnel appeared to be aware of the program in the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, and fewer received Federal Post Card Applications for absentee ballots by a DOD deadline in 2006.

Participation on this year's presidential election has not been tabulated, but military and civilian overseas voters did have a variety of online resources to assist them. Money was appropriated in fiscal 2007 for an online Military Voter Registration System, which was supposed to be operational in December 2007, but was not launched until August 2008. This Web site offers tools for voter registration, for requesting absentee ballots and/or federal write-in absentee ballots to be used as a back-up when a state absentee ballot cannot be obtained in time, and information on where to send applications and ballots.

But in October, Maloney criticized the system as unstable, error-prone and difficult to use. She said the site was inferior to an independent site developed by the Overseas Voting Foundation, which provides a more automated process.

'The current military voting system, as implemented by FVAP and its current leadership, is too cumbersome and convoluted to effectively serve those who serve in the cause of freedom,' the letter stated.

In October Maloney and Honda introduced a bill to reform the FVAP by establishing an oversight board and requiring experience in election administration for the program's administrator.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program Act, H.R. 7265, was referred to the House committees on administration and rules and did not see action this year, so legislators are focusing on the selection of a new director as a means of improving the program.

'The position of FVAP Director is absolutely critical, and a thorough selection process is imperative,' the legislators wrote. 'It is out understanding that DOD currently aims to close out this hiring action by December 3, which is likely to result in an unnecessarily rushed and informed hiring decision.'

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