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DoD News Briefing - Overseas Absentee Voting

Presenters: Charles S. Abell, ASD (Force Management Policy)
June 22, 2001 10:00 AM EDT

June 22, 2001 - 10 a.m.

(Also participating: Navy Capt. Eugene M. DuCom, deputy director of the Military Postal Service Agency.)

Staff: Good morning.

The purpose of today's briefing is to discuss the actions that we plan to take or have taken or will be taking in response to the Department of Defense Inspector General's review of our procedures for handling overseas absentee ballots. Copies of that inspector general report -- also being released today -- copies are available in the back and will be posted on the Web. [ See http://www.dodig.osd.mil/audit/reports/fy01/01145sum.htm ]

Today we welcome to our podium the recently appointed and confirmed and sworn-in assistant secretary of Defense for force management policy, Charles S. Abell. He had a distinguished 26-year career in the Army and since 1993 has been a senior professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee focusing on personnel issues. Many of you may know him in that capacity.

Mr. Abell.

Abell: Thank you. Good morning.

I'm glad to be here today, and I'm going to discuss the findings of the Department of Defense Inspector General audit of overseas absentee ballot handling and to discuss improvements that my office, and working with Ms. Brunelli and the military services, will implement to make sure that every vote counts when they're cast by active duty military personnel, DoD civilian employees and their families stationed in the United States or overseas.

I would like to acknowledge that Ms. Polli Brunelli, the director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, is here with me today, and she'll be available to answer questions if you have those later as well.

Mr. Bob Lieberman and his staff at the Office of the Assistant Inspector General for Auditing completed an extensive review of DoD's Federal Voting Assistance Program, including the services, policies and procedures in order to assess the effectiveness of the program throughout the Department of Defense.

This started in November of 2000 and has just been completed.

The inspector general has made recommendations that will assist my office, working with Ms. Brunelli and the military services, to immediately improve voting awareness and assistance for our military members and their families and all DoD civilian employees who can exercise their right to vote.

Military members, their families and DoD civilians assigned overseas have the same right to vote as American citizens here in the United States. We in the Department of Defense must do all that we can to ensure that this right is not diminished by virtue of their overseas deployed or shipboard assignment. It's our responsibility to educate the military community on the voting process and to encourage them to vote.

The first objective is to emphasize the importance of voting at all levels within the command structure. The department is committed to building a voting assistance program that is consistent among the services and is consistent with the latest in technological advances and then work with the various states to embrace changes that foster voter participation.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program is our vehicle for providing information and assisting with this voting process. The program continues to improve. Opportunities for voting were better in 2000 than in previous years. In fact, we achieved a record high overseas military participation rate of about 72 percent.

The goals of the Federal Voting Assistance Program are to inform and educate U.S. citizens worldwide of their right to vote, to foster voter participation, to protect the integrity of the electoral process and to provide services and voting materials, such as the Voting Assistance Guide. The program has a proven record of meeting the voting needs of our military and overseas civilians on a nonpartisan basis. Both the department and the services' voting assistance programs provided information and assistance to about 258,000 active-duty military, 118,000 family members and about 87,000 DoD civilian employees stationed overseas during the 2000 federal election cycle.

The inspector general, along with testimony given by the General Accounting Office to the House Armed Services Committee, reiterated that their reviews uncovered neither systemic problems nor significant discrepancies of the Department of Defense Voting Assistance Program.

While the inspector general did identify areas that require additional work and others in which we can improve, he did not find that the program failed or that there were systemic breakdowns.

We do need to enhance the training and education of our military community; we need to involve the entire chain of command; and we need to run a program that is consistent among the services and complies with the Department of Defense policies and procedures as we execute the program.

We welcome the recommendations for improvement made by the inspector general. As indicated in the report that you have today, we are going to follow through on all the recommendations and we are going to continue to seek ways to facilitate the voting process for members of the military community.

I'd like to mention that it's noteworthy to point out the dedication of our military voting assistance officers, since many of them volunteer to accept this assignment in addition to their other military duties. The inspector general's team visited 27 installations and ships and submarines worldwide, spoke with over 150 unit voting assistance officers. The comments and suggestions of these officers will help us to increase the awareness and participation, and their input will be incorporated into the 2002 Voting Assistance Action Plan, which will be out later this fall.

Some of the voting assistance officers should be commended for their exceptional innovation and creativity. We found ways that they have used, very creative ways, to get the word out not only to register but to mail in absentee ballots. On one Navy ship, the voting assistance officer held a Voting Day two days before the ship made a scheduled port visit. He was anticipating that that may be the last opportunity to make a mail dump before the election, and so he held his Voting Day on that ship to increase the awareness and provide the people the opportunity to get their ballots in as the ship made its port call.

The commander of U.S. Forces in Korea videotaped a commercial that focused on voting. The tape ran on Armed Forces Television in Korea from July through November of 2000. Another example of an Air Force installation in England in which all of the personnel on the base, active-duty, family members and civilian employees, have access to the installation Intranet. During the 2000 election cycle, various public service announcements and advertisements were placed on that Intranet. I might also add that the Armed Forces Information Service produced many stories during the 2000 election cycle and ran a number of public service announcements on Armed Forces Radio and Television centered on overseas installations, ships and submarines. The Federal Voting Assistance Program provided newsletters, posters, toll-free phone numbers, Internet web site [ http://www.fvap.gov/ ] and other material designed to raise the awareness and encourage voting.

As I said earlier, there are areas where the inspector general finds, and we agree, that implementation procedures and effectiveness can be approved for DoD-wide voting assistance. The Federal Voting Assistance Program will redouble its training and education efforts for service voting assistance officers and increase the focus on issues with the states in which we're dealing with legal voting residence, timelines for mailing voting materials and such. We're also continuing to work with the Military Postal Service to revise the postmarking requirements on first class mail.

An important note is that the audit revealed no problems or delays within the postal system that would have impacted delivery in an unreasonable way on balloting during this last election cycle.

We'll also continue to coordinate with state election officials to remedy absentee registration and voting problems as we discover them.

The Department of Defense will commit the necessary resources to embrace technological advances that will allow the military community to use the Internet and other data transmission equipment at no cost to the individual service member.

We also look forward to reviewing and discussing the recommendations in the General Accounting Office report. The General Accounting Office is reviewing programs and policies in place to assist military and overseas citizens in voting. Also included in their work is site visits and interviews at state and county government offices, embassies, consulates. And they, in conjunction with the inspector general, visited the military installations in the United States and overseas as well.

The General Accounting Office review is a little broader than the DoD IG review, in that they are reviewing reasons ballots were disqualified based on established deadlines by the states. Once we receive their report, the information in that should give us insights into how we can better meet the various state requirements. I understand that the General Accounting Office expects to release its report in September of this year.

One of the most important revelations in the inspector general's report is that our junior enlisted personnel need to be better educated about the Voting Assistance Program and about the necessity to register to vote. We will implement a requirement for the services to train all service members annually, including in basic training and pre-command courses, and we will emphasize voting assistance programs to inform and encourage those within their commands to register and to subsequently vote.

Additionally, the services will designate at least one well-advertised, fixed location on bases, installations and ships where absentee voting materials and assistance will be valuable to all military personnel, family members and civilian employees. These central locations may include such things as the legal office, the family service center, a community center, places that are accessible to the entire military community. We'll also stress that installations with tenant commands -- for instance, a Marine detachment on an Army base, or an Army detachment on an air base -- make sure that voting assistance materials and assistance are provided to those tenant commands as well.

In conclusion, the Department of Defense takes seriously the responsibility to assist in overseas balloting assigned by the president. As provided for by both the 15th and 26th amendments to the Constitution, the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state. Men and women who serve our nation in uniform today and tomorrow are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice in providing for the common defense. It's our duty to ensure that the ballots they cast are votes counted.

Thank you. And I'll be available for questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, might I ask you just first of all a couple of housekeeping questions. The 258,000, 118,000, 87,000 civilians you mentioned, are those the number of people who actually voted last year?

Abell: No, those were the ones who are overseas to be serviced by the Voting Assistance Program.

Q: And you say about 72 percent, I believe you used the figure?

Abell: That's our figure.

Q: Could you tell us how many -- do you know how many ballots were rejected last year?

Abell: No, sir, I don't, and this report didn't focus on that.

Q: And just one more follow-up. Would you say that the most important thing here is to start putting postmarks on these ballots to make sure that the states know when they were mailed, so if there's any problem with getting them there, perhaps there can be some adjustment made? There are currently, I understand, no postmarks on these ballots.

Abell: I think "no postmarks" is too absolute for me to agree to. I recognize that postage-paid, first-class mail doesn't require a postmark. l think that's part of what we're going to look at, as I said in my statement, is the postmarking procedures used by the military postal system. But it will also be an item of continuing discussions with the various states on what their requirements are.

Q: I see. Do you think you might put postmarks on -- I mean, they don't have to pay for these; postage is free, and thereby there not necessarily be a date on it. Are you look at perhaps putting dates on even the free?

Abell: We'll look at that.

Q: Just on the same line of questioning there. You mentioned in your statement "work with the Postal Service to revise postmarking requirements," which is, I think, what you were just referring to. But what specifically are you looking to change there?

Abell: I don't have a specific program in mind today, but we're going to review to see what the problem is, what the states require, and then how we can accommodate that to make sure that our military ballots are accepted by the various states. As you know, 50 states and the territories have different requirements for their absentee ballots, and we're trying to make sure that whatever our procedures are, they accommodate all of those.

Yes, sir?

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said the overseas vote was 72 percent of the people who could vote overseas did. Do you have for the stateside military population?

Abell: No, sir, I don't have that information.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Could I also come back to the postmark issue, because I guess maybe my memory has faded since the election time. And could you just reconstruct for us, then, what the issue is that emerged on military absentee ballots. Was it that they weren't dated because they were prepaid -- you know, it was first class? Could you just reconstruct for us what the whole issue is on the table here so we can understand it a little better?

Abell: I believe your question goes to an area that this report does not address, and that is what individual states did with the ballots -- or did or did not do with the ballots they received, and whether they were qualified or disqualified. We're hopeful that the General Accounting Office effort will provide more insight on that. But that was not the subject of this report, and I don't have any information in that regard.

Q: I fully understand. I'm just trying to understand better still your remark -- or your comment that you want to take a look at all of this and see what can be done to improve it. And I'm just wondering if you can help us understand what the issue is on the table that you're looking at.

Abell: Well, some states -- I forget the number, but it's in the report -- allow grace periods for absentee ballots to arrive after the date of the election.

And of course it's essential that there be some indication that that ballot was cast on or before the election day. Now, whether that's a postmark or some other way to indicate that is something that we have to -- that we have to address, and I'm not prepared to give you a final answer on that today. We'll be working -- I'll be working with Ms. Brunelli and the military postal system and the various state requirements to see what we can do to try and make sure that our military vote, properly cast before the election, is counted.

Q: Under current -- one follow-up question. Under current military postal rules, is first-class this -- ballots are -- don't require postage, I guess. So under the military postal rules, do they postmark? Does the military postal system postmark ballots?

Abell: If I could ask Captain DuCom from the Military Postal Service to answer that question; I'm not prepared to give you that answer.

Q: And could he please state his name for us when he gets to the microphone?

DuCom: Captain Eugene M. DuCom. I'm the deputy director of the Military Postal Service Agency.

Q: How's your last name spelled?

DuCom: D-u-capital C-o-m. And we would require that the ballots be postmarked. We do require that all the mail be postmarked. There have been -- obviously some were not postmarked that arrived. I don't know the reasons for that. The IG report did not identify a particular problem in that area, but we do require that they would be postmarked and we'll continue to do that. In some of the discussion, we probably need to do a better job of making sure that people understand the need to do that.

Q: Did the IG not ask the question, or was it unable to be determined why they weren't postmarked?

DuCom: I don't have any idea whether they asked the question or not.

Q: Do you have any figures on how many were not postmarked?

DuCom: No, I don't.

Q: Can you discuss what efforts were made after election day to get ballots back to the United States within the deadlines given by the various states, and were express mail services used as well?

DuCom: Each individual service is responsible for their operation of the mail system. The Military Postal Service Agency is a policy oversight. I do not personally know of any ballots that were express mailed back to the United States.

Q: Secretary Abell, it appears from what we heard last year and what this report says, that the problem lies with the wide variety of the ways the states handle these ballots and, you know, with the rules they have, the time lines and everything like that.

You know, one of the proposals being tossed around on the Hill is a uniform requirement for federal absentee ballots, particularly overseas. Would you comment on whether that could be a possible solution to some of this, at least reduce the confusion?

Abell: I'll leave that to the legislative branch personnel.

Q: Aren't you folks going to make recommendations? I mean, you can clean up all you want here at the DoD level, but if the states are going to continue to throw up obstacles, you know, what you're doing is not going to be much help. I mean, you're not going to make proposals to the Hill on what they should do to help this problem on the domestic level?

Abell: I don't know of any plans to make a proposal to the Hill in this regard. I wouldn't characterize that the states throw up obstacles. The individual states have their own policies and procedures and state-level laws for dealing with education -- or excuse me -- with voting. Our part here is to educate our folks in what the various state requirements are and to help our people meet those requirements. If the legislative branch asks for our views, I'm sure that we'll review whatever they ask us to look at and provide some input. But I don't know of any action on our part to do that unilaterally.

Q: Captain, I might ask, just to clear something up. When you speak of postmarks, you're talking about a date.

DuCom: Postmark consists of the identifying APO or FPO that it originates from and a date.

Q: And that is required, although it may not have been followed.

Q: (?) On all mail.

Q: So Secretary Abell, when you said something like postage-paid first-class mail doesn't require a postmark -- that's what my notes say -- I'm a little confused between the two of your statements.

Abell: I'm willing to be wrong. (Laughter.)

Q: Okay. It does require it, but there were some cases --

Abell: If I misspoke, I apologize. I defer to the captain.

Q: Maybe it's a question of date; I don't know.

DuCom: The Military Postal Service manual requires all mail be postmarked. I'm sure there are very few of you out there that have not received mail from the USPS that does not have a postmark on it. USPS postmarks things to cancel stamps. The cancellation postmark is a one-time thing. It accomplishes the same thing. Not all the mail that USPS processes, even first-class mail, gets postmarked, because of various reasons.

It may be pre-metered mail, it may be pre-sorted mail, it may be a lot of different reasons. So in the Military Postal Service Agency, we postmark everything because we don't have -- we do not use equipment that scans the mail to identify a stamp or anything and get it postmarked. So our requirement is to postmark everything, and we'll continue to have that requirement.

I think there had been some misunderstandings throughout since November about postmarking mail because we're an extension of USPS, and USPS will not in all cases postmark the mail and ballots may not get postmarked either. But we postmark everything. We don't have the electronic -- we don't have the -- I guess the expertise -- or the equipment that they have, I would say, would be a better expression; we don't have the equipment they have to do the scanning. We postmark everything.

Q: When ballots come through your system, do they require postage on them?

DuCom: No. No.

Q: Okay.

Q: Is there a point where there's a handoff between the military postal system and USPS, or does mail go through the military postal system and right to people's homes or wherever the --

DuCom: If we speak return mail, mail coming -- what we call retrograde mail, originating overseas -- take the European theater; all letter-class mail coming from the European theater goes to JFK, which is called a gateway for USPS in New York. All the mail comes in, gets sorted, and gets sent out then just like it's domestic mail.

Q: By the military? By the military?

DuCom: Negative. By USPS. Military postal service, once the mail is tendered to the airline and the airline has done whatever -- you know, they've crated it up in particular cases, that mail then goes to USPS at the gateway. Military postal people do not handle the mail in the United States for sorting purposes or anything like that. We do a quality control at those gateways; we do not handle the mail.

Q: So the last time you touch it is in Europe when you give it to the airline?

DuCom: That's right.

Q: And the postmark happens at the base or the installation?

DuCom: The postmark in most cases should happen at the post office that has responsibility for that mail. In other words, if you deposited a letter in a mailbox, or if you're on the front lines and your mail clerk collected the mail for you and took it back to the post office, the post office that has that responsibility would be doing the postmarking.

In the case of ships, some small ships do not have postal clerks. That mail is then postmarked at the receiving post office, military post office, overseas.

Q: So what could have happened then with the ballots, when people saw that there was no stamp on it just figured it didn't need a postmark. Some postal clerk somewhere just put into the mail system that way?

Abell: I wouldn't speculate on what people were thinking.

Q: Mr. Abell, I'm a little confused. Wasn't one of the major problems with the election in November that members of the military were disenfranchised because their ballots arrived without postmarks? Wasn't that one of the reasons for this audit by the inspector general?

Abell: That was not the purpose of this audit by the inspector general. The purpose of this audit was to determine the effectiveness of the Military Voting Assistance Program and the handling within the military postal system.

Q: So when you came out to brief us today, you had no intention of -- there's nothing in here that addresses the problem of postmarks and the reason that many military ballots were disqualified, lacking a date or a postmark?

Abell: This audit was -- is not a postmortem of the 2000 election. The General Accounting Office, as I mentioned earlier, is doing one that comes closer to that, looking at reasons why ballots may not have been accepted. But that's not the purpose of the --

Q: How can you say that the Pentagon -- the Pentagon is devoting resources to make sure that military personnel are able to exercise the same right to vote if you haven't addressed what was one of the key problems in the November election? I mean, wasn't -- wasn't that one of -- am I wrong? Was that not one of the key problems in the elections?

Abell: I'm not prepared to talk about that. It's not part of this audit. It's our role and mission to assist the military personnel in meeting the various requirements of the state and district and precinct in which they are registered. We don't have any cognizance over what happens when that vote arrives at that specific precinct.

Q: Well, obviously there's two ways to address this problem of postmarks. One is for the military to ensure that all of the ballots are postmarked so that they're accepted by the states. The other would be for the states to change their requirements and recognize that perhaps all the military ballots don't have postmarks and therefore not require them, or something along those lines. But this doesn't seem to address either one of those solutions to what seemed to be one of the major problems of the November election.

Abell: Well, you heard the captain say that if it's mailed in a military post office, it should be postmarked. We will -- we will reinforce that.

Q: You can't tell us how many military ballots did not receive postmarks?

Abell: I cannot.

Q: Well, what is your data on this statement that not all were? Is that anecdotal, or do you have data on how many, what percentage weren't?

Abell: The information I have actually comes from you all.

Q: Well, let me get -- start again. This report seems to be on how many people in the military overseas and families and so on participated, we know about 72 percent, and how those ballots were handled while in the hands of the military postal service, correct? But then it doesn't sort of address the throughput question of what happens to them after they --

Abell: Actually, when you read the report, it doesn't really even deal with how they were handled, how a ballot was handled within the Postal Service. The report was -- the inspector general was asked to at look the effectiveness of the Voter Assistance Program and what could be done to improve the Voter Assistance Program, and I think it does that very well. But it does not go as far as you perhaps would like it to. And again, we are hopeful that we get --

Q: I thought there was some language like no -- I forget what it was.

Abell: They didn't find any systemic breakdowns.

Q: And -- or --

Q: Well, what does that refer to?

Abell: That we couldn't find a -- the IG did not find a place where the system failed. If there was a, for instance, an individual postal clerk who failed to postmark a ballot or a group of ballots, that was not a system failure. We may have had an individual who needed more training or who, for whatever reason, failed to perform on a particular day, but we did not find the system that failed.

Q: Well, isn't that a system failure? If you require postmarks on the ballots and everybody isn't postmarking these ballots, isn't that a system failure on you-all's part that you're not -- you're not requiring people to do what the system says to do?

Abell: I'd characterize that as an individual failure.

Q: Well how can you say that the report finds no systemic failure when you, just a few moments ago, said it didn't look at one of the key requirements of whether or not these ballots were postmarked, and had any sort of accounting of how many were postmarked or how many weren't? We have -- from this report, have no idea whether there was a small number, a large number, whether the requirements were followed generally or not at all. There's no way to tell. How can they make the statement that there's no systemic problem?

Abell: Within the scope of what this IG audit reviewed, we did not find a systemic failure. Again, I think you're asking about what happened when they were received; they're no longer in our cognizance at that point.

Q: Are you expecting that the GAO report is going to address these questions?

Abell: GAO has a different charter, a more broad mandate, and I don't know what's in their report. We'll see that probably when you do.

Q: Sir, in your opening statement, about 10 minutes in, you said, "There were no problems or delays within the postal system that would have impacted -- " blah, blah, blah -- "the most recent election."

Now that, to me, is saying you tracked the mail handling through the military postal system and you didn't find -- I think the quote was, "no problems or delays that would have impacted" -- et cetera. So I'm confused.

Abell: I think I used the word "unreasonably impacted."

Q: Okay. (Laughter.)

Abell: But again -- again, we didn't find --

Q: I don't get every word right!

Abell: We didn't find occasions where the system failed or where there was a breakdown and bags of mail were left unaccounted someplace. We did not find that.

Q: So what this report, then -- to sum it up and make sure we understand it -- is that as far as your Voter Assistance Program, your ship-board and foreign-based folks that are in charge of making sure that the election is publicized and that people have reasonable means of where to get a ballot and how to submit it, that was all fine, and beyond that, you don't know?

Abell: It was not -- it's not perfect --

Q: Right, it's not perfect, but you say it was the best one on record, so there's no great alarm bells here. So basically what you're saying is the Voter Assistance Program is fine; we don't know about the rest of it.

Abell: It worked, and we're going to make it better.

Q: And about the rest of it, you have nothing to say?

Abell: That's right.

Q: Is there anything that you would like done differently about this audit? Does another audit need to be done going over some of the same ground that this audit went in, that is just the military part of it, not the interface with the states and those requirements, but just the military part of it? I'm getting the sense that you don't think this was necessarily complete or --

Abell: No, to the contrary. I think the IG did a great job, and I think it's given my office and Ms. Brunelli's office indications of where we need to do more work, and we intend to do that work.

Yes, sir?

Q: Sir, just a -- I guess in the 2000 election there was an Internet voting experiment. For the 2002 election are you looking -- and I understand that went well. Are you looking to expand that, which would then sort of preclude some of these problems that you had last year?

Abell: We would hope to. As I mentioned, we're going to try and exploit the technological advances that we can. Again, that's -- the states have to participate and agree with that. But if we can expand that, then we will.

Q: Thank you.

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