New online tool for overseas voter registration

The Overseas Vote Foundation today launched an online tool to help military personnel and civilians living abroad navigate the maze of state and local voter registration requirements.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Voting Act ensures that citizens away from home can register to vote and receive ballots in U.S. elections, but that right often is thwarted by a tangle of arbitrary, unclear and burdensome processes that vary from state to state, advocates said.

'Voters have to cope with a tremendous amount of information in different forms,' said OVF President Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat. 'They rarely find what they want quickly.'

The new application provides a common front end for all state registration processes. It automatically loads required questions for the appropriate state and county, prompts users through the answering process with drop-down lists, and generates a completed PDF application that can be printed, signed and mailed. It also generates a list of instructions for voter registration in the user's home jurisdiction, along with the address for mailing the application.

The tool is one of a suite of new voter assistance applications hosted on the OVF home page, created with help from a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust's Make Voting Work initiative. Other applications include a directory of state and local election officials and a directory of state-specific overseas voting regulations, and a help desk backed by a knowledge base to answer common questions. Two more applications are expected to go live in a few days: personal accounts that will store information to speed up subsequent registration applications and an application form for federal write-in ballots.

Dzieduszycka-Suinat said that OVF began writing specs for the applications a year ago and began development in April. The page went live last week with a soft launch.

The registration process is just the front end of systematic problems that practically disenfranchise many Americans living away from home.

'It is really hard to vote as an active-duty voter,' said Robert Carey, a senior fellow with the National Defense Committee, a military advocacy group.

Carey cited Defense Department figures that showed a 22 percent voter turnout rate among active-duty military voters in 2006. And according to the Election Assistance Commission, many of the votes of those who did cast ballots were not counted.

An EAC report issued in September said that there are about 6 million overseas citizens and uniformed service members and their family either abroad or away from home domestically who are eligible to vote. But state and local election officials reported 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.

On the positive side, an EAC survey of absentee voters from four states (Florida, Illinois, Montana and South Carolina) showed that new programs to enable registration, ballot request and voting electronically ' either by e-mail or fax ' seem to work well.

'The numbers are small but the satisfaction levels are high with electronic transmission of materials,' EAC said.

But there is no comprehensive program to remove barriers to voting. Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman, at today's launch ceremony, called the situation 'inexcusable and a travesty of justice.'

Alabama, along with Ohio and Minnesota, is one of three states have licensed the OVF tool for their own Web sites. The licensed tool with be branded with the state's name, but will have the same interface and functionality as the OVF-hosted applications.

'You should start seeing them in the next couple of months,' Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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