Department Works to Improve Absentee-Voting Procedures, Boost Participation
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 15, 2008 The Defense Department has made great strides over the past four years to ensure servicemembers, particularly those stationed and deployed overseas, have greater opportunity to vote, a senior defense official told Congress today.
Michael L. Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the House Administration Committee the department is working closely with the U.S. and military postal services and other entities to ensure no servicemember wishing to vote misses out on the opportunity.
The Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program works cooperatively with state and local elections to carry out provisions of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. This 1986 law safeguards absent servicemembers’ and their families’ right to vote for federal offices, and also protects voting rights of other U.S. citizens overseas.
In 2005, the department simplified two forms used for absentee voting: the Federal Post Card Application, a registration and ballot request form, and the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, a back-up federal ballot used when a state ballot doesn’t arrive on time.
Dominguez said the revisions not only make the ballots easier to use, but also safeguard the voter’s private information.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department continues to reach out to citizens covered by the UOCAVA law and to federal, state and local officials and to advocate the greatest use of existing or emerging technologies into the voting process, he told the panel.
“We have made progress, but more remains to be done,” he said. “The Internet holds promise.”
The department also encourages states to adopt Federal Voting Assistance Program legislative initiatives, he said. Its top priorities are to get states and territories to mail ballots at least 40 to 45 days before their due date and to allow election officials to send out state write-in absentee ballots three to six months before elections.
The program’s other initiatives include expanding the distribution of voting materials through electronic transmissions and to give state chief election officials emergency authority to alter election procedures in limited circumstances -- from extending ballot return deadlines to allowing blank or voted ballots to be transmitted electronically.
“The department takes extraordinary steps to ensure that members of the uniformed services, their family members and overseas citizens have an opportunity to vote,” Dominguez said in prepared testimony submitted to the panel. “Expediting ballots through any and all media accepted by state and local officials is a very important aspect of the absentee process.”
One initiative introduced in 2004 allows eligible absentee voters to request and receive absentee ballots via the Internet. To take advantage of this system, voters must be enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, be covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, and be registered to vote in a state and county participating in the DoD program.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department continues working to educate servicemembers and other citizens covered under the absentee-voting law about the absentee-voting process, Dominguez told the committee. Between September 2007 and September 2008, the Federal Voting Assistance Program staff will conduct 155 workshops for voting assistance officers.
Dominguez hailed an “extensive outreach program” these voting assistance officers provide as they educate their units about absentee-voting requirements and procedures. Meanwhile, the Federal Voting Assistance Program maintains a Web site of voting information.
While conceding that it’s impossible to know exactly how many citizens covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act actually vote, Dominguez said survey results showed more voted in 2004 than in 2000. Among uniformed servicemembers both overseas and statewide who responded to the survey, 73 percent voted in 2004, compared to 57 percent in 2000, he said. In addition, 77 percent of federal civilian employees overseas voted in 2004, up from 55 percent in 2000.
Dominguez expressed confidence that these rates will continue to climb. “Through our collective efforts to improve ballot transit time and promote and implement expanded electronic transmission alternatives, voters will continue to reap the benefits of these improvements and in this and future elections,” he said.