Many overseas voters still can't cast a ballot, study finds

Regular mail outperforms online methods for request and delivery of ballots

New requirements for the delivery of ballots to military and overseas voters led to modest improvements in participation in the 2010 election, but a post-election survey by the Overseas Vote Foundation found that many absentee voters remain effectively disenfranchised.

The reforms were mandated in the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act passed in October 2009, which required states to use online technology where necessary to make ballots available to military and overseas voters at least 45 days before the Nov. 2 election to assure the marked ballots’ timely return. Despite these efforts, one-third of respondents who attempted to vote could not because they either did not receive a ballot or received it too late.

This represents a major improvement from the one-half of overseas voters who were unable to cast ballots in the 2008 election, but “the sweeping reforms will need to be completely implemented before their impact is felt to their full potential,” OVF concluded in the report on survey results released today in a meeting in Washington.


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Voters using online technology, including e-mail, Web downloads and faxing, to request and receive blank ballots, actually fared worse than those using traditional mail, and only a small minority of local election officials surveyed said the technology worked well.

OVF recommended action at the local, state and federal levels to improve overseas voting, including a legislative review of the laws governing overseas voting now in place.

The Overseas Vote Foundation is a nonprofit organization promoting the ability of military and overseas voters to participate in federal elections. This is a group that traditionally has had limited access to the electoral process because distances have made it impractical for many of them to receive and return ballots in time to be counted.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) sets the for absentee voting requirements for these citizens, including active members of the armed services, the merchant marine and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, their family members, and U.S. citizens residing outside the United States. The MOVE Act established requirements for the request and delivery of ballots to these voters.

OVF surveyed 1,555 local election officials and 5,257 overseas voters about the impact of the law on 2010 voting.

The foundation found a significant increase in the use of electronic transmission for blank ballots. All 50 states used some electronic means, mainly fax, e-mail and downloadable forms, compared with 20 states in 2008, in response to the MOVE Act. Twenty percent of the election officials surveyed reported that upgrades had been made to their IT systems and 37 percent had upgraded websites in response to the MOVE Act.

But implementation at the local level was not uniform. Almost a third of local election officials reported that they were not providing ballots electronically.

The vast majority of voters -- 80 percent -- used some electronic method to complete a voter registration and ballot request form, and 23 percent chose to receive the blank ballot electronically.

Electronic transmission usually was used only for delivery of blank ballots. Because of security and privacy issues, the completed ballot still must be returned physically to an election office.

But “voters who used electronic methods to request a ballot were less likely to receive a ballot,” the survey found. Twenty-two percent of these using e-mail or fax to send a voter registration and ballot request form did not receive a ballot, while only 16 percent of those who used physical mail did not get a ballot.

On the other hand, those who did receive ballots were more likely to receive them in time to vote. Only 16.5 percent of voters reported receiving ballots after the middle of October, compared with 33 percent in 2008.

To improve performance in the 2012 elections, OVF recommended that:

  • All states seek long-term solutions to comply with the MOVE-mandated ballot transmission timeline to provide voters the necessary time to vote.
  • There be a legislative review of UOCAVA in light of the MOVE Act 2010 implementation, amending the law as necessary to smooth out emerging problems stemming from poorly worded provisions.
  • States adopt the proposed Uniform Military and Overseas Voter Act developed by the Uniform Law Commission to harmonize UOCAVA implementation in all states and territories.
  • Local election officials be given more support in the implementation of new technology for online ballot requests, blank ballot delivery and ballot tracking.
  • Strict privacy and security mechanisms be applied when using IT in UOCAVA processes.
  • There be more outreach by all states to overseas and military voters to help encourage timely participation and improve awareness of new voter services.

 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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