ELECTION 2004 Overseas ballots are essential
Military absentee votes could prove pivotal in many races.
WASHINGTON -- The 500,000 American troops at posts around the world constitute a pool of potential registered voters larger than the voting rolls in four U.S. states.
But studies of their Election Day participation and anecdotal complaints from GIs suggest that as many as 40 percent of them have been disenfranchised in one election or another by mail and voting-system glitches in the past.
Mindful of the 2000 presidential election, when scores of ballots from service members were voided because of technical and other disputes, the Pentagon has joined with the U.S. Postal Service and secretaries of state across the country to head off a repeat.
But one longtime watchdog of military voting procedures says the improvements, welcome though they are, still leave ballots at the mercy of the military mail system and the vagaries of handwritten votes. The Pentagon had hoped to allow 100,000 troops and other U.S. citizens abroad to vote via the Internet this fall, but canceled the experiment after questions were raised about the security of such a voting system.
"We're still handling military absentee ballots in essentially the way we did in World War II by shipping pieces of paper around the world," said Samuel Wright, a Navy Reserve officer who heads the nonpartisan Military Voting Rights Project.
The stakes could be huge in November. Most political analysts are predicting a particularly close race for president and, possibly, for control of the U.S. Senate -- contests in which military absentee votes could prove pivotal.
That was the case in Florida in 2000, when the ballots from troops essentially gave the state to then-GOP candidate George W. Bush. During the unprecedented recount that fall, Democrats moved in court to disallow hundreds of military ballots because they arrived late or were not properly postmarked, while Republicans battled to include them.
This year, pollsters and analysts say the military vote could tip contests in as many as 10 states, particularly because service members typically vote in proportionately greater numbers than the civilian population. Traditionally, members of the military -- past and present -- and their families have lined up overwhelmingly behind Republican candidates.
But cracks in that solid support have emerged in recent years, and the war in Iraq might trigger more, particularly among the reservist citizen-soldiers who have been mobilized for long, dangerous duty in Iraq.
Both political parties are singling out military voters, including veterans, for special attention this campaign season. The bloc of voters in uniform overseas is larger than the overall registration ranks in Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
For its part, the Pentagon has launched a broad effort to curb voting problems of the past and to make sure all troops and their spouses have enough time to register to vote, request absentee ballots and return them. A key deadline in its program comes Sunday, the day by which the military wants all GIs to have mailed their applications to register to vote.
The message on voting is being spread throughout the ranks by a combination of e-mails, banners in commissaries, media announcements, even reminders printed on all pay stubs. Designated "voting assistance officers" have been ordered to speak individually to each GI in his or her unit to ensure that everyone gets an application and knows how to vote absentee.
A partnership with the Postal Service will make overseas voting mail a top priority, sorted into special trays and sent via Express Mail to their destinations. Troops also can download ballot applications from the Internet, and absentee residents of 32 states can even have blank ballots faxed to them.
To ensure that no absentee votes are voided because they lack a legible postmark -- as hundreds were in Florida in 2000 -- postmarking machines have been inspected and replaced if found faulty.
"We are taking aggressive steps in the area of voting," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said in an in-house Defense Department publication.
Wright, a lawyer who has toiled for 23 years to improve the military voting system, lauds these changes as important steps forward.
But he contends the system still is riddled with problems that can deny those fighting to uphold the right to vote the ability to exercise it themselves. Case in point, he said, is the military mail system, which the U.S. General Accountability Office criticized in April for massive delays, particularly in Iraq and environs.
"The only real long-range solution with a large degree of confidence is electronic voting," Wright said.