GOP seeks probe of military voting assistance programs

A group of 35 congressional Republicans has called for an investigation by the Justice Department into the possible disenfranchisement of millions of military service members in the upcoming presidential election.

'We have failed to adequately protect the right of our troops to participate in our democratic process' by not providing adequate assistance to service members and their families who are away from their homes in the United States or overseas, the 13 senators and 22 representatives wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey. 'We ask that the DOJ investigate and determine whether the Federal Voting Assistance Program [FVAP] is fulfilling its legal obligations to provide overseas U.S. military service members and their dependents with the necessary information and assistance to register to vote, request and receive absentee ballots, and vote.'

The request came about three weeks after FVAP announced the launch of a redesigned Web site to provide information about registration and absentee voting for local election officials and voters who are overseas.

'We encourage voters to use our new tool, now available on our Web site, to complete the Voter Registration and Absentee Ballot Request Form using only the specific information they need for their state,' the FVAP announcement states. 'Voters from participating states and jurisdictions may also use the feature to send a completed, signed and scanned Registration and Ballot Request Form to their local election office and receive their blank ballot online via a secure server.'

Multiple layers of security have been implemented to protect personal information. 'These advancements will provide military and overseas voters an easier way to register and request absentee ballots, as well as another alternative to the by-mail process of absentee voting, without sacrificing the security of the voter's identity,' the FVAP announcement states.

The Overseas Vote Foundation, an independent, nongovernmental organization, has developed software for an online tool to help military personnel and civilians living abroad navigate the maze of state and local voter registration requirements. Several states have licensed the software to provide their own versions of the tool on their Web sites. Some have also initiated small but innovative online registration and voting programs to assist their citizens who are overseas.

FVAP is responsible for administering federal laws that address voting rights for citizens serving in the military. One of those laws is the Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election. It requires that service members and their families be given 'ready access to information regarding voter registration requirements and deadlines, absentee ballot applications requirements and deadlines, and the availability of voting assistance officers to assist members and dependents to understand and comply with these requirements.'

In addition, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act ensures that citizens away from home can register to vote and receive ballots in U.S. elections. The Election Assistance Commission administers the act.

But a September 2007 report by the commission's inspector general showed that much work remained to be done to protect the rights of overseas voters. According to a Government Accountability Office report cited by the commission, about 6 million eligible voters are abroad or away from home domestically. But state and local election officials reported that only about 992,000 members of that group requested absentee ballots in 2006, and only slightly more than 330,000 of those ballots were cast or counted in that year's election.

The Republican lawmakers also criticized the military's use of voting assistance officers. Those officers are supposed to have the time and resources to assist all military personnel, but a report issued by the Defense Department's IG in 2006 said only 59 percent of military personnel were familiar with the program.

'We ask that the DOJ undertake this investigation with the utmost urgency so that we can avert what would be an absolutely unacceptable outcome ' the disenfranchisement of our military service members and their dependents in the November 2008 election,' the Republicans wrote.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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