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DoD News Briefing with Polli Brunelli from the Pentagon

Presenter: Federal Voting Assistance Program Director Polli Brunelli
October 09, 2008
                COL. GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Good afternoon. I'm Colonel Keck, the director of the Press Office, and it's my pleasure to welcome you here today.   
 
                And we have with us today Ms. Polli Brunelli, who is the director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. The Federal Voting Assistance Program administers the federal responsibilities of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act for the secretary of Defense, who is, of course, the presidential designee for this responsibility. Over 6 million service members, military dependents and U.S. citizens abroad are covered by the act.   
 
                With exactly 26 days to go before the election in November, obviously the FVAP program's of interest to some folks. And we are rapidly approaching the culmination of two years of work in this area to increase access to absentee voting -- absentee voting materials and getting information to our service members and those who live outside the United States.  
 
                So with that, I'm going to turn it over to Ms. Brunelli and she can answer any question you have in this matter. Ma'am? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Good afternoon. We are fast approaching the November 4th election, and we just wanted to let you know what we're doing in the Federal Voting Assistance Program to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to vote and to get their votes counted. 
 
                So we have been working -- a planning session a year before this election, getting ready for the primaries, getting people enfranchised for the primaries, and now we're fast approaching that November 4th deadline where people will be able to vote for the president and other federal offices. 
 
                Short briefing today to talk about some of the things we have been doing. We have our Web site, which all of our voters can access from around the world, and we are talking about 4 million potential voters out there. We have military and their family members stateside who are eligible to vote absentee, and we have federal employees overseas and we have all U.S. citizens who are residing outside the United States.  
 
                And this is a very mobile population, particularly overseas with our military.   
 
                This Web site will provide all the information that a voter needs in order to vote in his or her legal voting jurisdiction. So it's a simple process of going to fvap.gov, and whether it's a military overseas member clicking on the proper connection and finding out what the voter needs to know in order to request a ballot.   
 
                We are right here in the process now of not only allowing voters to request a ballot in certain states -- because it's still not too late in many of these states to request an absentee ballot, still not too late to send in a registration form -- but it's also the voting period. So what the Federal Voting Assistance Program has been doing is making sure that the states mail out their ballots on time to the voters. The states have certain timelines when they mail out the votes -- the ballots. Sometimes it's 45 days before the election.   
 
                So we're contacting the states and making sure those ballots get out. And what we want to make sure is that all of our voters know about all of these efforts. As a matter of fact, we just sent out an e-mail notification to 1.3 million active duty members to let them know that now is the time to be expecting your ballots and what you should do and when you should mail them back to make sure that they can get back to your voting jurisdiction in time to be counted. And if you do not receive your requested ballot, safe ballot, what you should do is use an emergency or backup procedure, which is our Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot. And that's available in card stock form all around the world to our voters. It's also available on our Web site; so keeping those voters informed about what's going on. 
 
                Absentee voting week is also being promoted through the Military Postal Service Agency and through our office and through other venues to make sure that people know that mid-October, the 12th through the 18th, is a good time for these voters to mark their ballots and send them back to the states so that they can be counted. The objective here is to make sure that the voters properly executed -- execute their ballots and get them back by the state deadline, do everything that the state tells them to do. And those ballot instructions are included with the blank ballot that's sent out from the states.  
 
                We also have been working with the U.S. Postal Service and the Military Postal Service Agency to expedite ballots going out of election offices to the gateways -- New York, Miami, and San Francisco that serve APOs and FPOs to make sure those ballots are moving very quickly and of top priority. As a matter of fact, I have a report from Military Postal Service Agency covering the period from 8 to 28 September and about -- they have tracked 50,000 ballots that have gone out to the gateways already. Realize also that there are states that send out blank ballots electronically by fax and e-mail.   
 
                The other information that we have for our voters and that we've been working with the mail systems is to provide express mail coming back from overseas through the APOs and FPOs during the period of 29 October to 4 November. So our voters can take their ballots, put it in an express mail envelope and get it back to their voting jurisdiction.   
 
                We've also been working with the departments of the states, and they've been working with courier services to make that expeditious -- mail or courier services available to other citizens overseas as well. And we've been working with secretaries of state on various initiatives to make this voting process easier.   
 
                As a matter of fact, there was a delegation -- a bipartisan delegation of secretaries of state representing the National Association of Secretaries of State that just came back from visiting our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and Kuwait and Germany. These were from five states, and they met with members of their guard. They met with voting assistance officers. They met with commanders in those areas and they also visited postal facilities to see how the mail operations worked in those areas.   
 
                The other thing we want to talk about is in addition to all of these mail processes -- because we wanted to give our voters an opportunity to select the method that best fits their situation, whether it's military or overseas citizens. So we work with the states and the states eliminating barriers to absentee voting, the states put in place legislation. 
 
                Because after all, the states are the ones that run elections. They are the ones that have all the election laws in place, and that's what covers absentee voting. We are then the Federal Voting Assistance Program in the Department of Defense to facilitate that process.   
 
                And so one of our legislative initiatives with the states, and we asked them to pass this initiative, is to allow electronic transmission of voting materials. And that can be faxing and it can be e-mail. It can also be used -- use of a secure server, where ballots can be uploaded to that server. So we've made tremendous success in that regard.   
 
                If you look at the bottom part of this slide here, you'll see the progress that has been made with sending voting materials -- FPCA has a registration form. They are blank ballots being sent by electronic transmission and also voted ballots being allowed to come back to the States, either by fax or e-mail, with the voter waiving his or right to secrecy.   
 
                Most recently, we've seen Arizona, for example, that has -- is allowing their voters to vote the ballot, scan it and send it back to the -- to Arizona over and post it on a secure server. So here's a ballot that can come back from the voter, voted ballot, and sent through a system that provides for a password, user ID and encryption and that ballot can be sent right back to the state's server. It's a wonderful thing for our voters to do because it cuts down significantly on ballot transit time. Ordinarily, these electronic processes cut in half the time that would be required to send these balloting materials back and forth through the mail, even though we are using expeditious processes.   
 
                And also, there's a benefit with electronic transmission in that it's very portable. So while the mail works very well and while a voter may say to election officials, send my ballot here, that voter may not be there. But if the voter has access to a computer wherever he or she is, whether it's temporary duty or at home because of an emergency, that voter can get access to a computer and fulfill their -- and execute their ballot. 
 
                We also have been working with Pennsylvania, and they're faxing -- allowing faxing of the registration form into their jurisdictions, and also they will fax out the voted ballot to members who are in imminent danger areas and combat areas. 
 
                New Jersey will allow faxing and e-mail of the whole process. Ballot request -- they will send out the blank ballot by fax or e-mail to voters, and they will also accept the voted ballot. The same thing for West Virginia. These are recent things that the states have been doing to enfranchise our citizens. 
 
                We also have a new project, it's called the voter registration/ballot delivery project. And it's a feature on our Web site that allows voters to come in and set up an account. And we have about 15,000 user accounts that have been established in the last couple months. And so those voters go into that account, fill out a registration form for their state. It's a system that allows the voter to look exactly -- to have the system put onto the registration form all of the pertinent parts of the form that need to be filled out, all the parts of the form that the state wants a voter to complete. So it leads the voters through the process, interactive form. And then it allows the local election official to upload a blank ballot to that voter and then the voter can come in and download that blank ballot, vote it and return it by whatever means the state allows them to return it. 
 
                That concludes my portion. If you'd like to ask me any questions, I'd be glad to answer those. Yes? 
 
                Q     Dawn Casey with Talk Radio News. What's being done to ensure that there's no duplicating of votes, that someone isn't sending in an absentee ballot from somewhere and then coming and voting in their jurisdiction somehow, some way, doing a duplicitous type of voting? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: The states are the ones that control that process. And so they have a system in place to check that. They have registration rolls, for example, so they would know if they have someone on a registration roll for an absentee ballot and they sent that individual an absentee ballot. 
 
                Then when the voter comes back to the polls to vote, that the registrar would be alerted to that. And there is a process in place to -- (word inaudible) -- that. Sometimes it's a matter of giving the individual a provisional ballot to vote but then deciding how that's going to be counted, looking for the other ballot to come back. So there is a process in place at the state level to guard against that. 
 
                Yes? 
 
                Q     The 50,000 that you spoke of, so far? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Yes. 
 
                Q     I mean, can you expand further on that? And also, is there a uniform rule for troops overseas that if they submit the ballot by, say -- the time stamp of the day, the Election Day, I mean is that universal or is it again dependent on the states? 
                MS. BRUNELLI: I'll answer the second part first. It depends on the states. We have a number of late-counting states, so in those late-counting states, what they want to make sure is that there is evidence that the voter has cast the ballot on or before Election Day, before the preliminary results are revealed. And then -- so what most of the states are looking for is either a postmark or an affidavit where the voter signs and attests to the fact that the voter executed the ballot when he or she was supposed to by the state requirements. Sometimes there's a notary or a witness requirement. So those are all state procedures.   
 
                The 50,000 ballots that I was talking about are when the local election officials have sent out their ballots and those ballots get to the gateways, military mail is expediting those ballots. And what they're doing is tracking them so that they know during that period I talked about, the 8th to the 28th of September, that they have tracked almost 50,000 of those ballots.   
 
                Now, they don't track the ones that go out electronically, of course. And then we'll be getting subsequent updates from Military Postal Service Agency as well. This is going to go on throughout this whole voting period now that we're talking about, to include up till the 25th of November, because what we have are late-counting states. 
 
                Q     They're going into theater, the 50,000. 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Fifty going in -- yes -- going in. And we'll be tracking the ones coming back as well. 
 
                Yes? 
 
                Q     Have you had any problems at all with the states in terms of getting the registration ballots out to the -- out to troops or back? And have you -- are you -- or have you had any problems yet with getting -- well, I guess it's too early to tell on the voting, but any registration problems with states in any way, shape or form I guess -- since you've got so many different styles you have to deal with. 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Well, we are there to help with the voters. If they have any questions, we have an ombudsman service. So we assist people in that registration ballot request process as well. And we do have people who make a decision to register at the last moment. So when we're talking about those types of voters, if a voter waits until the last minute, there's not much that we can do.  
 
                What we were doing to guard against those last minute -- sort of mitigate those types of situations is the electronic transmission of the forms. If a voter makes a decision that I think I want to register in my state right now and vote, and the registration deadline is that day or tomorrow and if the state allows electronic transmission of that registration form, then the voter has met those requirements and state deadlines. And then what the voter does is send in the original copy of that form so the original copy is on file.   
 
                The states, in monitoring when the ballots are going out, we do have -- when we talk with the states and ask them when they've mailed out their ballots -- we are aware of certain issues. Sometimes the county or the state is in court dealing with the ballot issue. Sometimes someone wants to be put on the ballot, and then -- and if the court says yes, that name needs to be on the ballot, that means the ballots have to be reprinted and sent out. But we have all sorts of alternatives for that in working with the states, what they can provide. There are many states that have a state write-in absentee ballot, for example, so that's -- includes all of the state offices so they can push that out right away to the voters as an advance ballot, for example, if they think the regular ballot is going to be delayed.   
 
                We also have those processes where states can post the ballot on a secure server, such as what we have in the Federal Voting Assistance Program under the VRBD project. 
 
                We also know that there have been floods, for example, in certain areas, and that may affect when the ballots get printed. So what we're looking for is about 45 days ballot transit time or at least 30 days and some late counting and those types of situations, too.   
 
                And we also have that back-up ballot around the world, so it allows our voters to vote for federal offices. And just in case that state ballot gets to them a week or so before the election, at least the voters have the opportunity to vote for those federal offices.   
 
                And then what we tell our voters, go ahead and whenever that state ballot arrives, vote that and send it back, too, because the states have a process for making sure that only one ballot is counted. So they'll count whatever ballot gets back by the state deadlines for counting.   
 
                Yes?   
 
                Q     You mentioned that 4 million people are potentially covered. How many of them are military?   
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: We have about 1.4 (million) military members who are covered, and we have almost an equal number of their family members, and we have about 100,000 federal employees overseas, and then we have several million overseas citizens. There's no census for those private citizens overseas. So the ranges are from close to 4 million to 6 million itself. So what we say are potentially -- 6 million potential voters out there.  
 
                Q     One point four million -- is that just the number of active duty? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Active duty, yes. So when the Guard --  
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- the number of eligible voters in that population of active duty?   
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Eighteen years old, U.S. citizens.   
 
                Q     But you don't have an estimate of how many eligible voters are in the military?   
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: We have a rough estimate, and it's about 1.3 million out of that 1.4 (million).   
 
                Q     (Off mike.)   
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Yes. Any other questions? No?   
 
                Yes?   
 
                Q     The speed on which the ballots come back from -- I guess anywhere, from military installations or overseas in express mail, that's regular U.S. Post Office service, or is that military APO service coming back?   
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: That's the -- the express mail that we're talking about in that period, 29 October to 4 November, that's working with military postal and U.S. Postal Service to move that mail out of the APOs and FPOs back to the voting jurisdictions.   
 
                Q     Do you know about how long you expect that to take -- a ballot to take to come back from the -- say, from the Central Command region? Is there any time frame you all have --  
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Well, usually it's about three to five days. It's, you know, difficult to say. It depends on what's going on at the time. It depends on what the weather's like. Sometimes we have tsunamis at certain times, and sometimes we have other things going on. So all of that affects the transport. But it's very expeditious.  
 
                Q     Are there airplanes that are set aside for this? Is the military setting aside certain aircraft or boats or whatever?   
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Well, they do have -- they do have contract transportation, for example, but it's all part of the regular transports that they're using.   
 
                These ballots are tagged. They're in containers. They're marked. They're tracked. And so it's a priority at handling, so they make sure they get on with other types of things -- equipment, medical supplies, all of those priorities items -- so they're moving along very quickly. 
 
                Yes. 
 
                Q     Point of clarification, though, the point of entry for those ballots is a military post office overseas. They're not going to take them to an in-country post office and get the same express mail treatment. 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: That's true. That's true. 
 
                Q     So if they're casting their ballot at a military post office, then they can get the express mail. 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Right. And those APOs and FPOs -- State Department has APOs as well, so we're talking about covering that as well. 
 
                Q     Of the 4 (million) to 6 million eligible voters, do you have any idea how many or the percentage of absentee ballots that were cast in the past? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: That were cast? The states would collect all of that information, so -- they're the ones that receive all of the ballots. They keep tally of all of that and then -- 
 
                Q     There's no DoD benchmark that you hope to achieve in getting service members or a population to cast -- 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Well, we do have a survey that we conduct of those various populations. And that will be kicking in here right around the election date, so it's fresh in their minds what voters' experiences were. So we will ask our military voters, "Did you vote? And if you didn't, you know, why not?"   
 
                We don't care how they voted, but we just want to know about the experience, because if there was a problem with their voting then that means we have to address that in our education of voters -- you know, this is what you need to do. You need to make sure that you get your ballot request in early to make sure that you get a ballot on time. You need to understand what processes are there that the state provides, for example, as an alternative -- faxing and e-mailing. So we roll all of that into our education and information for all of our voters, the U.S. citizens abroad as well. 
 
                And we do survey the federal civilians overseas, and also all of our -- we have a sample of our U.S. citizens, and we work with the State Department in developing that sample and sending out those surveys. 
 
                And then we also surveyed the local election officials and our voting assistance officers to look at the whole process. So we do have statistics that the voters provide to us about their voting experiences and whether or not they voted and they didn't. So we collect that every presidential election year. 
 
                And all indications are that there is a(n) incredible amount of interest in this election, from what we hear from the local election officials dealing with the registrations that were coming in for the primary elections, for example, and understand that anyone who requested a ballot for the primary will automatically get a ballot in -- for the November 4th election as well. 
 
                So I think we will see very high participation this year. 
 
                Yes? 
 
                Q     The 1.4 million that you referred to -- is that domestic and overseas, or --  
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Yes.  
 
                Q     What is the breakdown for overseas? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Well, I think we have about 500,000 military overseas, and I would -- that's about right. Yes, about 500,000. 
 
                Q     And the surveys that you're talking about are -- is a combination of both the domestic and the overseas? 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Correct. 
 
                Anything else? 
 
                COL. KECK: Thank you -- (off mike). 
 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Thank you.
 
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