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.

Soldiers deserve voting rights, too
A fourth of all military absentee ballots will be lost or disqualified

By Brian Darling
Published August 15th 2006 in Charlotte Observer

"Freedom isn't free," say bumper stickers supporting our troops. Waging civilization's fight for survival, members of our armed services are willing to risk paying the ultimate price. But there's something they shouldn't have to sacrifice: the right to have their votes counted.

About one in every four of our military personnel serving overseas will be disenfranchised this year. The National Defense Committee estimates that 24 percent of all military absentee ballots filed this year will be lost, spoiled or otherwise made pointless by government interference or incompetence.

The problem is nothing new. Remember Florida 2000, when late-arriving ballots became a divisive issue in the fiercely contested presidential race? Teams of lawyers flooded the state to fight over ballots cast by military and other would-be voters overseas. In the end, some were counted, others disqualified.

Typically, military ballots were challenged on technicalities. Did the envelope lack a stamp? (Postage is generally free for those serving in combat zones.) Did it arrive a day after the Florida deadline (even if the ballot was clearly mailed weeks ahead of Election Day)? Such "problems" are well beyond the control of military voters and wholly divorced from concern about fraudulent ballots. Yet in many cases, it was enough to get military votes tossed.

Disenfranchisement of the military was a scandal then. But in the five years since Florida cast a national spotlight on the problem, the Department of Defense has made only minimal efforts to fix it.

Ballots run late

Time remains a critical issue. One reason overseas voters are disenfranchised so often is that states take so long to finalize their ballots. In Nevada's 2004 election, for example, lawyers filed so many challenges to the way the ballot appeared, the final version wasn't ready until late September. After the usual bureaucratic delays, many absentee ballots were not mailed until early October -- too late for, say, a sailor in the Persian Gulf or a grunt in Afghanistan to get it, fill it out and return it before Election Day.Slow and unreliable mail delivery compounds the problem. Many states require a 15- to 30-day notice to deliver a ballot to an absentee voter. Even if a soldier in the field requests a ballot in timely fashion, it may arrive too late to be useful. Or it may arrive only to find that the would-be voter has been ordered elsewhere in the interim. The reality of military life, especially in a hot war, often makes it extremely difficult to get mail to the intended recipient in timely fashion.

Making sure the members of our civilian-led military have a say in the selection of our civilian leadership ought to be a priority. American men and women in uniform are putting their lives on the line to protect the right of Iraqis and Afghanis to vote. We must protect the same right for them.

Why not use the Internet?

Our nation allows taxes to be filed online. And many top-secret communications are done though encrypted secure servers in our military. So why not allow secure, Internet-aided ballot delivery this fall? That was the thinking of Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., earlier this year, when he added $2.5 million to the Iraq spending bill so the Defense Department could implement a new process called the Interim Voting Assistance System.

Designed to expedite the transmittal of ballot information to our armed forces, IVAS lets overseas voters register online, then download and print the appropriate ballots from a secure server.

Under this system, service members can get their ballots electronically, as soon as they are finalized, and election officials will have a traditional paper ballot to work with.

It's a great idea, but the implementation process has lagged. In an attempt to get the Pentagon moving, Burns recently used one of the few tools senators have to make bureaucrats jump: He placed an indefinite hold on all civilian nominations to defense posts.

Like a 2-by-4 applied to a mule's skull, Burns' move certainly got the attention of the Pentagon's brass. Within days, they promised to "do whatever is necessary" to get the system up and running in time for this year's elections. Burns just as promptly released his "hold."

Even with the IVAS program back on track, there is no guarantee that every military vote will be counted this year. In close elections, lawyers for liberal candidates will be sorely tempted to try to disenfranchise largely conservative military voters by filing lawsuit after lawsuit.

But these brave hearts are willing to march and die to defend us and our democracy. The least America can do is protect their voting rights while they serve in the field.