No time to vote

Half of the states and the District of Columbia have disenfranchised overseas military voters or put their votes at risk by not allowing adequate time for citizens to receive and return absentee ballots, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Reliance on the U.S. Postal Service and the military mail system is inadequate for a voting process that takes an average of 66 days to complete, according the Pew center’s report, titled “No Time to Vote: Challenges Facing America’s Overseas Military Voters.”

“Because of the time it takes military personnel serving overseas to request, receive and return absentee ballots, too many of these men and women do not get a say in how America operates,” managing director Sue Urahn said in releasing the report.

Wider use of fax and e-mail to distribute blank ballots, along with broad reform of local election laws, could help solve the problem, the study concluded. Those conclusions are in line with findings released last month by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on the security of overseas voting technologies.

The Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act ( UOCAVA) guarantees military personnel and their families the right to vote in U.S. elections, but distribution and collection of ballots and has been a longstanding problem. Ballots could be distributed securely by telephone, fax, e-mail and Web-based services using existing technology and safeguards, NIST concluded in its study, titled “A Threat Analysis of UOCAVA Voting Systems.”

The Pew study calls for the use of electronic transmission for both distributing blank ballots and returning voted ballots, but concedes that sending a voted ballot by fax or e-mail raises privacy concerns. This also echoes NIST’s findings.

“The return of voted ballots poses threats that are more serious and challenging than the threats to delivery of blank ballots and registration and ballot request,” the NIST report says. “In particular, election officials must be able to ascertain that an electronically returned voted ballot has come from a registered voter and that it has not been changed in transit. Because of this and other security-related issues, the threats to the return of voted ballots by e-mail and web are difficult to overcome.”

The Pew center has worked with the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) to create online resources to help overseas voters register and vote in elections. These resources often complement tools provided by the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) and have been adopted by many states. The FVAP has come under fire from Congress for not doing an adequate job of supporting the military voting franchise.

Although figures for overseas participation in the 2008 election are not available, the Pew study found that 16 states and the District of Columbia do not allow enough time for absentee ballots to be returned from military personnel overseas in time to be counted. The voting process takes an average of 66 days to complete in those states, including the time ballots are in transit, and an average of 12 additional days is required for votes to be returned in time to be counted.

Procedures and deadlines in another nine states allow voters five days or fewer to return voted ballots, which the study concludes puts those votes at risk.

The study concludes that greater awareness of and use of the online Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot could help overseas voters. But that is only a back-up in federal elections for voters who do not receive their state ballots in time. More efficient distribution of state ballots still is needed. Using fax or e-mail to distribute ballots could solve the time problem in 16 of the states now identified as providing inadequate time for overseas voters, Pew concluded.

Thirty-two states allow blank ballots to be distributed electronically, and 19 of those allow voted ballots to be returned electronically, 11 by fax only and eight by either fax or e-mail.

Both the OVF and the National Defense Committee, a non-governmental organization supporting military personnel, applauded the Pew study, saying there is every need for and no reason to oppose electronic transmission of absentee ballot applications and blank ballots.

“It could make all the difference whether a ballot makes it back to the local election official in time to be counted,” said Bryan O’Leary, a senior fellow at the National Defense Committee.

“State legislation and technology adoption make a dramatic difference in whether our military can effectively vote from overseas,” said OVF President Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat.

Voting laws in individual states have resulted in what the Pew study called a confusing patchwork of rules and deadlines. Pew is working with the Uniform Law Commission to develop a uniform law for all voters covered under the federal UOCAVA legislation, which includes members of the military, their families and other U.S. citizens living abroad. They hope to have such a law adopted by states in time for the 2012 federal election.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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