Overseas Troops Still Disenfranchised
Problems with military absentee ballots that clouded the 2000 election have not been fixed, jeopardizing the ability of more than 160,000 troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to have their votes counted this fall.
Among developments that have election officials concerned:
Ã¢€¢ A $22 million pilot program to develop an Internet voting system for Americans deployed overseas was scrapped after the Pentagon concluded it would be vulnerable to hackers intent on tampering with elections.
Ã¢€¢ The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress formerly known as the General Accounting Office, found that the system used to collect and deliver mail in Iraq, including absentee ballots, suffers from long delays and other problems.
Ã¢€¢ The Pentagon’s inspector general found that a Defense Department program to ease voting by Americans overseas, including deployed troops, continues to be given low priority by field commanders. Surprise visits to 10 foreign sites found seven programs ineffective and three only partially effective. Nearly three of every five troops surveyed said they did not know their voting assistance officer.
Ã¢€¢ A Pentagon agency charged with helping servicemembers and other Americans abroad vote is more than two months late in providing information for a report by the Election Assistance Commission on how states are doing and how they can improve. “I would like to have seen it out much earlier,” says Paul DeGregorio, a member of the commission, which was created to help solve voting problems.
The commission can’t finish its report until it gets complete information from the Pentagon, DeGregorio says. “I’m frankly disappointed,” he says. Military personnel “are sacrificing their lives. They have every right to think their government is going to help them participate as voters.”
Amazing. From a pure equity standpoint, this was arguably the most eggregious problem in 2000. Disenfranchising soldiers in harm’s way overseas is more problematic than undercounting people too stupid to punch a chad all the way through or ensuring that they don’t accidentally mark “Pat Buchanan” when they mean “Al Gore.” Now that we’re at war (and fighting back) it’s simply inexcusable that this hasn’t been solved.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program, a small office that is part of the Defense Department, said in a written answer to questions that it is “confident the military mail system will allow servicemembers to send in absentee ballots in a timely fashion.” The office said it is working with the U.S. Postal Service to give priority to ballots in specially marked envelopes.
More than 4 million Americans live abroad, including servicemembers and their families, embassy workers and civilians whose jobs take them overseas.
Studies show that military families are more likely to vote, and more likely to support Republicans, than others. But this year, military experts say long deployments, low morale and some disaffection with President Bush’s foreign-policy decisions may erode the GOP’s edge. Any problems with military voting could have the greatest impact on battleground states such as Florida, Missouri and New Mexico, which have large military populations.
In 2000, an estimated 29% of military personnel who wanted to vote did not get absentee ballots or received them too late. The impact was felt particularly in Florida, where hundreds of military absentee ballots weren’t counted because they arrived late, lacked postmarks or had problems with signature verification.
A study by the Pentagon at that time found that three-quarters of overseas troops it interviewed reported problems in voting. In a separate study, the GAO found that instructions from Washington to help troops vote were often given low priority in the field. The new studies this year suggest that those problems haven’t been fully addressed