By Michael Moss
Published September 1st 2004 in New York Times
Four years after overseas voting became a battleground in the presidential election in Florida, millions of civilians and soldiers living abroad still face a bewildering and unwieldy system of absentee balloting that could prevent their votes from being counted.
Election officials concede that tens of thousands of Americans overseas might not get ballots in time to cast votes. Late primaries and legal wrangling caused election offices in at least 8 of the 15 swing states to fail to mail absentee ballots by Sept. 19, a cutoff date officials say is necessary to ensure that they can be returned on time, a survey by The New York Times shows. In Florida in 2000, late-arriving ballots became a divisive issue when some were counted and others were disqualified.
The tardy ballots are just one of several setbacks or missteps that have affected the ability of the estimated 4.4 million eligible voters overseas to participate in the presidential election. Some have been unable to send their registrations to a Pentagon contractor's computers, which are clogged by thousands of voter forms. Others were denied access to a Web site designed to help Americans abroad vote. And many voters simply have had trouble navigating the rules and methods that determine how and when to register and vote and that vary by state.
"I found it so convoluted I gave up," says Alex Campos, a management consultant in London who repeatedly tried to register using the Pentagon program, without success.
To help speed the balloting process, federal officials activated a new system last week in which voters can obtain absentee ballots instantly through the Internet. But the Web site, myballot.mil, will be offered only to members of the military and their families, quickly raising concerns about fairness in a program that the Pentagon has been directed to run for civilians as well. In addition, 23 states have already declined to join the system for various reasons, including security, according to Pentagon and state officials.
People on both sides vying for the overseas vote say the balloting system remains so flawed that some predict legal battles if these votes prove crucial to the outcome of the presidential race.
"If it's a close election, one can expect a great deal of challenges given the confused state of this complex matrix of rules and regulations, and the lack of central leadership in their implementation," said Jim Brenner, the executive director of Americans Overseas for Kerry.
In recent interviews, Pentagon officials defended their voting assistance effort and said the new Internet ballot retrieval system was only one item in a menu of services the program was using to help both military and civilian voters.
"There is no favoritism," said Scott Wiedmann, the program's deputy director, adding that the new system must be limited to the military because the identities only of service members can be verified.
Other efforts under way to help overseas voters include speeding mail delivery for people in the military and a special federal ballot that all voters can request if their regular ballot does not arrive from their state on time. But election volunteers working overseas say that many voters do not know the ballots exist, or if they do, do not know how to use them.
Republicans and Democrats are pushing hard to solicit these voters after some assessments indicating that President Bush'ssupport among the estimated 500,000 members of the military and their families overseas may have weakened. There is little direct polling of soldiers, but Peter D. Feaver, a sociology professor at Duke University, says surveys have shown that while most officers are staunchly Republican, the rank and file newest to the military has been more closely divided between the parties.
"Kerry will do better in this group than Gore did,'' Mr. Feaver said, "but he will not reverse the Bush advantage."
There is also little polling of the 3.9 million civilians abroad. But last month, a Zogby poll of Americans who had passports found that they supported John Kerry over Mr. Bush, 58 percent to 35 percent.
The concern about states not getting their overseas ballots out in time surfaced most recently in a report this month by the newly formed United States Election Assistance Commission, which found that 18 states did not have systems in place to mail ballots at least 45 days before the election. A commissioner, Paul DeGregorio, said in an interview that states with late primaries did not have enough time to turn around and send out their ballots overseas.
Of the eight swing states that missed the 45-day mailing mark, only three will accept ballots that arrive after Election Day. Overseas voters have until Nov. 10 to send their ballots to Florida, which experienced problems four years ago that prompted widespread calls for improvements to overseas balloting.
In 2001, the General Accounting Office examined overseas voting and found numerous problems, from inadequate public education on the subject to late ballot mailings. In surveying small counties throughout the country, for example, the G.A.O., now the Government Accountability Office, found that 8.1 percent of the overseas votes had been thrown out mostly because they were late or not properly completed.
In response, the Pentagon placed voting assistance officers in military units worldwide and retooled its general Web site for voting assistance to help more Americans navigate the labyrinth of local voting procedures that apply overseas.
But some voters say the Web site remains difficult to use and that program workers have provided wrong information. Adam Hess, 26, a marketing coordinator in Ottawa, said he was told that he could not vote because he has never lived in the United States; he later learned that was not true since he received his citizenship through his American father.
In recent weeks the federal effort has also been clouded by a series of missteps that appear to have affected mostly civilian voters.
After blocking Internet systems in more than two dozen countries from gaining access to the general Web site, the Pentagon retreated last week and says it is trying to find a less encumbering way to protect against hackers.
Two weeks ago, Americans in various countries complained to voting rights groups that they received only ringing or busy signals when they tried to fax voter registrations to the number provided by the Pentagon.
"I come from Florida, and it's like, here we go again," said Timothy P. Mason, a telecommunications analyst in Britain who said he tried for two days before giving up.
In an e-mail message to one of the voting groups, a Pentagon official said that military installations were tying up the lines by faxing in hundreds of registrations in single batches, and that efforts would be made to accommodate the volume.
New questions have also arisen about the private contractor hired by the Pentagon to handle these faxes and unsealed completed ballots at its offices in Alexandria, Va. The company, Omega Technologies, was sued last year by Adams National Bank, which accused it of failing to pay off a loan of more than $500,000. In court records the bank also said Omega improperly gained access to a Pentagon computer to reroute payments to the company's new lender.
A lawyer for Omega, Daryle Jordan, denied wrongdoing by Omega and said it had countersued in contesting the debt claim. Pentagon officials said they were not aware of the litigation or another billing dispute, brought in 2002 by a Nashville resort. Omega settled the second dispute without admitting or denying accusations that it fabricated a Federal Express record. Mr. Jordan said Omega did not consider the litigation relevant to its Pentagon work.
An effort by the Pentagon to create a broad Internet voting program collapsed in February after criticism by security experts that the system was prone to manipulation.
Ten states so far have agreed to dispense ballots through the more limited service that the Pentagon is announcing this week, according to officials.
Nearly half of the states now also allow voters to fax back their ballots to election officials, but the loss of privacy is causing concern among some soldiers.
Scott Rafferty, a Democratic activist lawyer in California, said soldiers had contacted him to say they feared voting by fax. One, an Army sergeant in Germany who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, explained his reservations.
"Some places you have to hand it off to get it faxed because the machine is behind the counter, at the finance office or personnel support battalion," the sergeant said. "They should come up with a better, more surefire system."