Overseas Disenfranchisement
Americans living abroad face unique challenges when trying to vote. Between three and seven million U.S. citizens live abroad--this includes soldiers and their families, students studying at foreign universities, and residents of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Although efforts have been made in recent years to ensure that military voters are able to participate in elections, these efforts often fall short. In some cases, registrations are not processed. In others, absentee ballots arrive late to soldiers, making it difficult to return them by Election Day; sometimes ballots do not arrive at all. 

Unlike military voters, other U.S. citizens living abroad do not receive the same extent of support when registering to vote. Since voter registration is handled individually by each state, an American living abroad must register with an individual state.  In some cases a state will reject the application of an expatriate.  This is typically the case with children of American families living abroad who may be denied the ability to vote when they come of voting age.

American citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands can be drafted into the military, but they are unable to vote for their commander in chief and are only entitled to elect a non-voting representative to Congress.

For more information about military and overseas voting, visit The Overseas Vote Foundation.


Vote Drive Targets Troops Overseas
US tries to make it easier for GIs

By Colin McMahon and Andrew Zajac
Published October 11th 2004 in Chicago Tribune
BAGHDAD -- Sgt. Marc Moyette doesn't put much stock in politics. Like many people in his National Guard unit in Baghdad, Moyette is not a voter. But that may change with this year's presidential election--for Moyette, his buddies and many other U.S. troops overseas.

With a push from Congress, the Pentagon is going to great lengths to ensure that U.S. service members can vote this year, wherever they are. And with foreign policy, the Iraq war and terrorism among the top campaign issues, more fighting men and women are expected to have their say in who will be commander in chief.

But whether a significant number of military votes will go uncounted, as they did in Florida in the 2000 election, remains an open question.

That's because despite the Pentagon's effort to inform troops about how to vote, the military remains hitched to a cumbersome, mostly paper-based system for voting across the globe.

Plans for all-electronic, Internet-based voting were scrapped earlier this year because of security concerns, and the Defense Department has scrambled to assemble a system for expanded balloting by fax and e-mail.

But not all states have signed onto all parts of the plan, leaving a complex mishmash of electoral regulations, procedures and deadlines outlined in a 379-page voter assistance guide for military personnel.

Eighteen states missed a deadline recommended by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to mail overseas absentee ballots at least 45 days before the election.

The delays result from late primaries, disputes over whether candidate Ralph Nader should be on the ballot and fights over initiatives such as a same-sex marriage ban.

That has put even more pressure on military voters to cast ballots quickly to ensure they arrive in time to be counted.

The Pentagon is urging its 435,000 personnel stationed around the globe to vote this week if they haven't already done so. If regular ballots haven't arrived in time, military voters can fill out write-in ballots for federal offices only.

The armed forces do not track turnout, but the supervisor of the voter registration process in Iraq says all but a few dozen of more than 134,000 troops stationed there have been handed absentee ballot applications.

"We had a goal of 100 percent contact," said Army Capt. Ken DeCelle of Alameda, Calif. "We got to 99.98 percent."

"People are more confident that their vote will count this time," he said. "Everybody is so worried about what happened in 2000, that if there is the smallest hint of something going bad, they squash it immediately."

But whether a soldier mails in a ballot application, receives a ballot, fills it in correctly and sends it to the right place with a timely postmark is something beyond DeCelle's control. "We do not take it to the mailbox for them," he said.

Ballots make priority mail

Ballots that do make it to the mailbox probably will have a relatively quick trip home. Within the Military Postal Service Agency, ballots have priority for overseas shipment, according to Assistant Deputy Director Mark DeDomenic. "If any mail moves, this stuff will move first," he said.

On the domestic side, the U.S. Postal Service has promised to ship outgoing and incoming ballots via overnight mail between military overseas shipping stations in New York, San Francisco and Miami and more than 5,700 local elections boards, spokesman Jim Quirk said.

Even critics of the armed forces' overseas voting process concede that logistics have been improved and troops appear better informed about voting.

The Pentagon "has done a better job of getting the materials out to military personnel at home and abroad," said Samuel Wright of the non-profit Military Voting Rights Project.

Nonetheless, Wright predicts "a lot of service members are going to be disenfranchised" because it still takes too long to distribute and collect ballots.

Indeed, there is a confused quality to the Pentagon's get-out-the-vote effort, an apparent consequence of the decision earlier this year to kill a $22 million project for Internet voting.

The cancellation of the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment because of security concerns sent military planners scrambling to Plan B, an effort to step up distribution and collection of ballots via fax or e-mail.

As recently as August, military officials were lobbying state election authorities to accept such ballots. But in many states, that meant changing laws on ballot privacy and security, and many state officials said the Pentagon's request came too late.

"That's the kind of thing that should been resolved before the first of the year," said Kevin Kennedy, director of the Wisconsin State Elections Board. "I would be very reluctant without legislative authorization to accept a faxed ballot."

As a result, participation in faxed and e-mail voting is a decidedly mixed bag, according to Defense Department data.

Fourteen states will not send or accept faxed or e-mailed ballots.

Thirty-two states allow ballots to be transmitted to troops via fax--but only 21 will accept a completed ballot by fax. In Illinois, the Cook County and Chicago elections boards will fax out ballots but require a postal return. State elections board Executive Director Dan White said he believes all other elections authorities in Illinois will use the mail exclusively.

Military voters from Missouri and North Dakota can vote by e-mail. But both e-mail and fax voting have been clouded by concerns about privacy.

In both cases voters must sign waivers acknowledging a surrender of privacy rights. That's because ballots are not sealed and do not move directly from voters to election authorities.

No guarantee vote will count

Once a ballot lands in a local elections office, it's still not guaranteed to be tallied because states have different deadlines for accepting overseas ballots.

Illinois, for instance, requires a ballot to arrive at its destination by the close of polls, on Nov. 2. But Ohio counts an overseas ballot if it is postmarked by the close of polls and is received within 10 days after the election. Florida tallies overseas votes received until Nov. 10.

The quirks of the military balloting system may be especially significant this year. The race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry is close, and the number of military personnel outside the U.S. is more than double the 200,000 posted overseas in 2000.

Some swing states have high concentrations of military voters abroad who could make the difference if the race stays close.

Interest in the campaign among service members overseas appears to be high. Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Federal Voting Assistance Program, said the Pentagon has had to supply extra fax lines at its electronic depot in Alexandria, Va., which collects overseas ballots.

As of Oct. 4, the Cook County Board of Elections received 2,295 military ballot applications, 600 more than it received for the 2000 election, said spokesman Scott Burnham.

What this will mean for the candidates is unclear.

Republicans predict that their traditional advantage among military voters will hold for a candidate who has declared himself a war president. Democrats see the casualties and hardships of Iraq turning average enlisted troops, and even some junior officers, against Bush.

"A lot of guys who don't ever vote are going to vote for Kerry because they see him as having the biggest resolve to get us out of here," said Moyette, the National Guardsman.

"If I do vote, I'll vote for Kerry," said Moyette, 29, an X-ray technician from Riverside, Calif. "If I felt there was a point to our being here it would be a different story. But I don't see the purpose in it."

Other soldiers and Marines in Iraq want to stick with the current commander in chief. They fear that Kerry would pull out of Iraq "before the job is done," as one Bush supporter put it.

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Vote overseas could determine winner here

With 435,000 U.S. troops abroad for this year's presidential election, ballots from overseas could play a pivotal role in determining how swing states vote. In 2000, 69 percent of U.S. troops abroad voted.

 1. Texas 44,236
 2. California 39,513
 3. Florida 34,771
 4. New York 21,272
 5. Pennsylvania 16,175
 6. Illinois 15,756
 7. Ohio 14,559
 8. North Carolina 13,711
 9. Washington 13,074
 10. Virginia 12,931
 13. Missouri 9,358
 24. Wisconsin 5,657
 28. Minnesota 4,744
 32. Iowa 4,030
 37. New Mexico 3,387
Note: Totals as of July 2004

Source: Federal Voting Assistance Program

Chicago Tribune