DoD Pushes Absentee Ballot Reforms
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 2004 DoD is pulling out all the stops to make sure the absentee voting program runs smoothly in this election year.
Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told reporters at the Pentagon today that the department has taken a number of steps to ensure that service members, government civilians and other civilians have the chance to exercise their right to vote.
Abell said there are more than 6 million potential voters in the Federal Voting Assistance Program universe. This includes 1.4 million military personnel, 1.3 million military dependents, and 100,000 federal civilian employees and 3.7 million expatriates living overseas.
The next big date for military voters is Armed Forces Voters Week, set for Sept. 3-11. "The message in that week is 'if you have not requested your ballot, or you have not registered for this election yet, you should do it this week,' to ensure there is enough transit time for materials to get to your local precinct," Abell said.
Following that is Overseas Voting Week, set for Oct. 11-15. Mailing ballots in that week or earlier will ensure they reach local precincts. "This is sort of like the Christmas mailing season," Abell said. "We're going to tell them some dates by which they should mail that ballot in. If they do, even from the remotest part of the world, to the remotest part of the United States the ballot material should get back to the ballot official in sufficient time to be counted in the Nov. 2 election."
In 2000, the absentee voting program was criticized when absentee ballots were disqualified for lacking postmarks or other reasons. Another problem was that some voters never received their ballots at all.
DoD has distributed more than 4.2 million Federal Postcard Ballot Applications to deploying servicemembers, to embassies and consulates and bases worldwide. Servicemembers take those cards and mail them to their local precinct. The voting officials in their hometowns mail the ballots to the servicemembers, who in turn mark their ballots and mail them back.
DoD and the U.S. Postal Service have worked together to speed ballots on their way. Voting materials have the highest priority of any mail. They will be shipped from local post offices via overnight mail to the APO gateways Miami, San Francisco and New York. They will go out on the first plane in specially marked cartons.
Once in theater, the ballots will go by first available transportation to the base and then to the individual. The same process works in reverse.
Each unit has a voting assistance officer, who is key to the whole system working, Abell said. The officers have gone through training to answer any question a voter may have.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program has also set up a Web site that answers many questions and has links to state sites.
DoD has also worked with the states who control elections to permit fax and e-mail delivery of blank ballots.
Servicemembers consistently beat the general population in the percentage of people who vote. In the 1996 general election, only 49 percent of eligible Americans voted, but 64 percent of those in uniform did. In 2000, 51 percent of Americans voted, and 69 percent of servicemembers did. "We're very proud of the way our folks practice their citizenship," Abell said.
He said that the department and the Federal Voting Assistance Program will continue to examine the voting process for improvements. "All in all, I expect our voter participation to exceed the 2000 or the 2002 numbers," he said.