New Procedures to Speed Overseas Absentee Balloting
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 2, 2004 Absentee ballots from service members overseas will move faster and with greater control for the 2004 elections, DoD and U.S. Postal Service officials said today.
Charles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Paul Vogel, the Postal Service's vice president for network operations management, discussed the changes made in the absentee balloting process for 2004.
"We've had a year of getting ready for the upcoming federal election, focusing on how we can help military personnel, their families and civilians overseas to exercise their right to vote," Abell said during a Pentagon interview. "As we have looked at every sort of situation, problem and impediment and tried to resolve them, we have come to another resolution to help us move ballots and ballot request materials from the hand of the overseas soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or family member to their county boards of elections."
Vogel said USPS has been working with the Military Postal Service Agency to improve the process, "because it is that important -- especially with a presidential election year coming up. If it's even as remotely close as the last election was, every ballot really counts."
Vogel said the DoD/USPS team has put together a process that will expedite the overseas absentee balloting mail flow and give greater accountability.
The Postal Service has no special program in place for service members voting absentee in the United States. "The Postal Service does a great job within the United States," Abell said. "Our problem has always been more with the overseas voters."
Essentially, the Postal Service will ask local postmasters to contact the officials in counties that are responsible for mailing ballots and to whom completed ballots are returned. "Traditionally, 30 to 45 days in advance of the elections, the blank ballots will be mailed out from those counties," Vogel said.
The Postal Service is asking the county officials to hold out the military ballots. Local postmasters will take those ballots and sort them for three different destinations: San Francisco for service members based around the Pacific Rim, New York for Europe, and the Middle East and Miami for Central and South America. The balloting materials will go to those destinations via the Postal Service's Express Mail service, Vogel said.
Once at these military mail "gateways," Postal Service managers will log in the Express Mail pieces and sort them to the different military ZIP codes. "All the balloting materiel will be sorted first," Vogel said. They will go into specially marked mail trays and handed over to the airlines.
Airline personnel will recognize the trays have voting materials and those trays will again receive priority.
In theater, military postal officials will ensure balloting materials are again given priority as it travels to the service member.
Once service members vote, the reverse process is the same balloting materials receive priority and ballots are placed in specially marked trays. One change, however, is that when ballots are received at the APO or FPO, mail clerks will put postal cancellation marks on the envelopes. This gives an accurate measure of the date and time a ballot is received.
At the postal gateways, ballots will go back into the normal mail flow in the United States that allows for a three-day delivery, Vogel said.
But on October 30, Postal officials will again segregate balloting materials and use express mail to send ballots back to county officials. Election Day is Nov. 2, but these special-handling procedures will continue through Nov. 8, Vogel said. However, he pointed out, some ballots received after Election Day may not be counted, because different jurisdictions have different voting requirements.
To be on the safe side, DoD and the Postal Service recommend service members and their families follow Federal Voting Assistance Program guidelines. FVAP is designating the week of Sept. 6 as Get Out the Vote Week. By then, "if service members haven't already requested their ballots, that's the week to do it," Abell said.
They are also designating the week beginning Oct. 11 as Overseas Voting Week. "If you vote that week, your ballot should arrive back at your home before Election Day, which will qualify your ballot to be counted in every state, county and precinct," Abell said.
Traditionally, military members and their families vote at a higher percentage than the general population. All administrations have encouraged military members to exercise their rights to vote. "We don't care how they vote, just so long as they do," Abell said.