Courting the expatriate vote

Level of overseas voting expected to be high for the presidential election

The Overseas Vote Foundation is seeing high levels of activity
on its Web site, as well as 16 other OVF hosted sites
offering registration and voting assistance to the estimated 6
million military personnel and civilians living overseas.


With a tight presidential race expected, the U.S. expatriate
vote is a constituency that cannot be ignored; both the Obama and McCain campaigns are incorporating OVF sites in
their efforts to get the vote out, said OVF President Susan
Dzieduszycka-Suinat. The foundation has registered nearly 90,000
voters for this year's election.


In addition to its own Web site and those used by the campaigns,
both political parties and a number of states also are using OVF
online services to provide information and forms for voter
registration, downloadable federal absentee ballots and discount
rates on express mailing of completed ballots to home precincts.
The sites have received more than 2 million visits this year, and
during September they were averaged 25,000 visitors a day.


Voting already has begun using the Vote-Print-Mail Ballot system
that generates voter-specific absentee ballots customized according
to the voter's home ZIP code. An Express Your Vote program
gives discounted FedEx rates for shipping these forms to stateside
election officials.


'It's taking off,' said Dzieduszycka-Suinat.
'It's really picked up in the last three days,'
especially from some Asian countries, where shipping is free.


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. Casting votes
traditionally has been difficult for them, primarily because of
delays in getting ballots delivered from local election officials
and returning them in time to be counted.


The Election Assistance Commission reported in 2007 that only
about 992,000 absentee ballots were requested by this group in
2006, and only slightly more than 330,000 of these were cast or
counted. The most common reason for requested ballots not being
cast, 70 percent, was that mailed ballots were returned as
undeliverable.


So OVF is using online technology to address the problems. Of
the nearly 90,000 voters it has helped to register, 26 percent are
first-time voters and for 70 percent this is the first time they
will vote from overseas. More than one-third are younger than 30.
The voting experience of these new and young voters is significant
because it could affect their inclination to vote again in the
future, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.


'It's hard to get new people to vote,' she
said. 'That's where we've been particularly
strong this year.'


Despite the successes, Dzieduszycka-Suinat is a little
disappointed with the numbers. 'I had hoped to get
500,000,' she said. 'Maybe I was shooting too
high.'


This is the first election cycle the OVF has had its
applications up and running. It offered a limited number of
services for the 2006 elections, but because of a loss of funding
its sites went offline in September of that year, and were not
relaunched until October 2007.


She also was hoping to get more of the military involved.
Although military personnel make up a large part of the overseas
constituent, only about 7,500 of them have registered through OVF,
less than 10 percent of the total. But the military has its own
program to assist registration. 'It's a fragmented
effort,' she said.


Most of the military registrations have come from Germany,
followed by Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea.


The Express Your Vote program began Sept. 15 before most people
had their ballots, so it only recently began taking off. To date,
700 waybills have been created. In the last three days the number
has begun growing at a faster rate as voter's ballots begin
to arrive. So far, ballots have been expressed home from 55 of the
89 countries in which discounted rates are available. The bulk of
the shipments are expected to be processed in the second half of
October.



About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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