Wednesday, June 2, 2004 10:36 a.m. EDT
Absentee Ballot Initiatives for U.S. Service Members and Dependents Briefing
STAFF: Well, I hope that some of your colleagues will join you, or are listening in the press room across the way because this is an important topic and it's one that has gotten some interest in the past.
And today we have with us Mr. Charles Abell, who many of you know here in the department. He's the principal deputy for personnel and readiness. We also have Mr. Paul Vogel, who is the Postal Service vice president for network operations management. And today they've agreed to provide us with some information on some of the joint efforts that the Department of Defense and the United States Postal Service have undertaken to ensure that every service member who is stationed overseas has the opportunity to participate in the upcoming elections. They're here today to announce a series of initiatives that are intended to expedite the delivery of absentee ballots to military personnel abroad, we well as how those ballots are handled and getting them back to where they need to go.
So, with that, I'm going to turn it over to them, and they have a few comments, and then they'll be prepared to take your questions.
Q On the record?
MR. ABELL: Hi. My name is Charlie Abell. I'm the principal deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness. As part of our ongoing effort to make sure that military personnel, their family members, and civilians overseas can vote and have their votes properly counted by their home precincts, we continue to look at the entire process, find impediments, resolve those impediments.
And today I'm here with our partners from the U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Paul Vogel, the vice president for network operations, to announce a couple of initiatives that will expedite the processing of the ballot materials as they flow through the mail system.
MR. VOGEL: Thank you.
Well, the Postal Service is honored to be partnering with the Department of Defense to make sure that soldiers and sailors exercise their right to vote. We also want to make sure that we have an expeditious process. And we've been working now with the Department of Defense, the Military Postal Service Agency, as well as the Secretaries of State -- Association of Secretaries of State to work out a process that we think will expedite the process, and are very confident about that.
Simply put, it's a low-tech solution. It's going to handle the 3,000 to 4,000 counties out there that send out federal election material. Our local postmasters will be getting in touch with each one of those election officials. And the process will be that we'll be asking those election officials to segregate out the military ballots from the rest of the ballots that may be being mailed out. Our postmasters will collect all of the ballot material, but in particular they'll hold out those military ballots and they'll bring them back to their local post offices, and they'll make a three-way split out of those ballots. We have basically three international service centers in the United States; one in San Francisco that handles the Pacific Rim; one in JFK that handles most of Europe and Iraq; and one in Miami that handles Central and South America.
So the balloting officials will give our local postmasters these ballots. The postmasters will make the three-way split, and then they will take those ballots and they'll put them in Express Mail envelopes and mail them to those three gateways. That will give us some accountability of -- we'll count how many ballots are in each one of those Express Mail envelopes, and it will give us the accountability, track and trace ability. Express Mail, as you know, is an overnight service, so from wherever it's mailed in the United States to one of those three gateways, it will be there overnight. The managers at those units will be looking for this Express Mail. They will open those express mail pieces, count how many pieces are in there, to do a cross check, and they will process them first during their processing day.
Now we use automated equipment to sort to the required level of distribution. Basically it's a five-digit ZIP Code, very similar to what you have on your own mail that you get at home. So we do a five- digit sortation for the military now, and we'll continue that process, but we'll sort the ballots first. So they will be the first into the machine and will be first out of the machine, so we can segregate those ballots. We send our letters in a two-foot cardboard tray that's sealed. So it'll be the first material in the tray. And we'll be banding that and identifying it as ballots inside this tray.
And we'll be putting a placard on the tray itself, a big red piece of paper saying, "balloting material enclosed," so that as we dispatch that mail to either our cargo carriers or our commercial airlines, they will see that that's going to have the highest priority. So regardless of how much product can get on that airplane, this will be the first stuff to go.
So our commercial carriers and the air carriers will put it on the plane first, and as it gets off of the plane at destination, remembering that we have troops all over the world, the military -- we would then hand it over to them. And the Military Postal Service people at the APOs and FPOs will see that tray first coming off the plane, and then they will be able to handle it uniquely from that point.
And then I turn it back to the military.
MR. ABELL: Our military postal personnel will see these trays. They'll be identified. They'll pull the balloting materials out of them, and they will move first through their system, ultimately down to the unit mail clerk and handed to the individual.
And then the reverse process -- when the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman signs their ballot, votes, if you will, it will be returned back into the unit postal clerk, shipped to the first military postal unit, where they will do the same thing. They will process them first. They will put them in these trays. They will use the same markings that says this tray contains balloting material. They will be in the front of the tray. And it will go back through the system exactly as it came in the system, first on the airplane, first on the truck, first back into the U.S. Postal Service processing operations when it arrives back in the United States. And then the post office will move it again back to the counties and precincts.
So that's our plan. What are your questions?
Q What were the lessons you learned about the failure, particularly in Florida -- with the problems with the military ballots being counted? And also, what happened to -- why Internet balloting was not moved forward with, please.
MR. ABELL: Okay.
Q Thank you.
MR. ABELL: Following the 2000 and the 2002 election, we have -- we do -- as we do with every federal election, we do some detailed reviews: What lessons can we learn? What improvements can we make?
We knew, as a result of those reviews, that we needed to cancel the balloting material, even though it's postage and fees paid and doesn't actually require a cancellation. That was one way that local precincts told us that they judged at what point was the ballot cast, so they knew that. So we now have cancellation materials on every ship and in every military postal unit -- every APO/FPO, if you will. And the instructions are that they will cancel balloting materials whether it needs it or not.
Q When would that be -- the process?
MR. ABELL: Well, that's been in place since --
Q When would the ballot be canceled? After the soldier --
MR. ABELL: When it arrives at the military postal unit.
Q After being voted on.
MR. ABELL: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Q Okay, yeah.
MR. ABELL: Right.
We've also learned other lessons. We've redesigned with the -- working with the secretaries of state of our states and territories -- they redesigned the ballot envelope itself so that there is a signature and a date that is witnessed on the back of it. Again, in case the cancellation is unreadable or something would happen there, it's another fail-safe. It's trying to get at this issue of when did the individual cast the ballot and put it into the system, and was that in time for that state, county, local precinct official, under their regulations, to be counted.
Q And that's the key -- I'm sorry -- that's the key, isn't it. When the service person votes, signs the ballot and it's dated, say, October 18th, whenever, that's the date that would be the one used to determine whether it met that particular county's deadline for absentee balloting.
MR. ABELL: The states, counties, precincts have different rules; some require the ballots to actually arrive before the election, some allow counting post-election -- to know the ballot was cast on or before election day, and that's where the date comes in. But the various local precincts have their own rules, and we are prepared to tell our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines what the rules are for their particular precinct when they interface with their unit voting officer.
MR. VOGEL: One thing that we didn't say as we were talking about that -- retrograde, the ballot actually coming from a soldier or sailor is -- if it gets close to that election day, November 2nd, starting October 30th through the 8th, we're going to expedite the handling of that piece as well. So if we do get any of these late ballots through, and we would be able to identify them using the process that Mr. Abell just explained, we will then take those ballots and put them in Express Mail envelopes from Kennedy or from Miami or San Francisco and Express Mail those ballots to the actual county election --
Q Well, it wouldn't be normally Express Mailed back to the counties?
MR. VOGEL: Normally they would not be. If it's well before November 2nd -- if it's October 18th it would just go in the normal mail flow, but the closer we get to that date the more sensitized we're going to be. So --
Q And the Postal Service bears the expense of that Express Mail?
MR. VOGEL: That's correct.
Q And on the special envelopes that are signed and dated on the back, is that going to be a standardized envelope, or are you working with the counties to develop --
MR. ABELL: Oh, that is standardized.
MR. ABELL: But we do work with the states and the counties, but it is a standard for most.
Q So there's only one?
MR. ABELL: It's a standard federal postcard or federal balloting material that we coordinate with the various states.
Q And it'll be signed on the -- regardless of whether the state wants -- every one will have the signature box on the back?
MR. ABELL: That will be the instructions to the voter, yes.
Q Okay. Not necessarily because the state requires it, but it just is one more check.
MR. ABELL: That's right. That's right.
Q How many service personnel should receive ballots this year in generally how many locations, if you could quantify them a little bit?
MR. ABELL: Well, I'm tempted to say all of them. (Laughter.)
Q I'm actually more interested in what number are out there that require absentee ballots?
MR. ABELL: Well, you know, that's tricky. Very few military people serve at the place of their official home of record. Even if they are in the United States, they are not registered to vote where they serve. They are registered to vote at their permanent home. So I don't think it's too far off to say of the military personnel -- you know, we've got 1.2 million on active duty, 1.3 million, somewhere in that category, plus all those mobilized for the various contingencies. So we're talking, well, one-and-three-quarter million folks who are not going to be where they could cast a ballot in person. And we would hope that all of those folks take advantage of the voter assistance officers and the federal voting assistance program and cast their ballot.
Q That's a lot more than the 2000 presidential race because you've got a lot more people mobilized now, I would think.
MR. ABELL: We do have more reservists and guardsmen mobilized, and we've been working with them as they've mobilized to get them registered and get unit voting officers trained at their mobilization stations before they deploy in anticipation of a higher demand, if you will.
Q You never answered my question about the electronic -- Internet voting.
MR. ABELL: We had it; in response to legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act, plan to test in -- we had 51 counties that had signed up to participate with Internet voting. We anticipated that to be in the general election in 2004. As part of that, we asked 10 cyber security experts to come in and do an independent critical review of our plan and of our software and of our approach. And as you know, a number of those folks issued a report that was critical of the security of that system. In order to ensure that military voters' votes were not at risk, the department decided that we would not use that system this year. If it was at risk and if there was a chance, then, that military ballots would not be counted, we did not want to put such a system in place.
So we have since that decision been working on this, continued to work on this Internet system. We are putting it in a file, if you will, and we will wait to see what our congressional direction is. As you're probably aware, the House bill and the Senate bill give us different approaches to the future on that, and so we'll wait to see what their guidance is as to how we continue.
Q The extra steps you've described today are all for overseas personnel, is that right? Are you doing anything special or anything in addition to what you've done in the past to make sure that the ballots are moved expeditiously within the United States; that somebody who's from California and stationed in Florida, that his or her ballot gets back to California in a timely way?
MR. ABELL: No, there's no special program for those folks who are not at home in the United States. We rely on our partners in the U.S. Postal Service to move those ballots.
Q And how about as far as -- service people have got a lot on their minds, especially overseas, and the last thing they may be thinking about is voting. What are you all doing as far as reminding them with public service or whatever announcements that, hey, you need to vote?
MR. ABELL: We have many different ways to do this. We are using the unit command information. We're using the military channels. The secretary of defense has signed out a memo to the combatant commanders and the service chiefs and stressed to them that voting assistance is a command responsibility.
We have scheduled two events that we hope to focus their attention on voting even though they are busy doing other things. The week of the 6th of September is a week that we encourage everyone who has not yet requested their ballot to send in the ballot request. And we would urge those folks who sent it in earlier and haven't received anything back from the county to consider sending yet another request in. So we expect a flurry of ballot requests flowing from overseas to the United States that week and the week immediately following that.
And then the week of, I believe it is, October the 11th is the week that we want our folks overseas to cast their ballot. If we look at the mail transit times from even the remotest parts of Iraq or Afghanistan, we believe that if they vote in that week, their ballots will be back home in the state, county, precinct to be counted well before Election Day. So if we use those two weeks as emphasis, we think we're fine.
As Mr. Vogel has explained, for those folks who are a little tardy, they're going to do some extraordinary things over that Halloween weekend to try and help our folks get their ballots at the place where it has to be in order to be counted.
Q You mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan, which brings to mind the idea that part of the U.S. mission in both of those countries is to promote democracy in both those countries, who will soon be having their own elections. Has any thought been given to having an event in, say, Baghdad or Kabul where service personnel would take their absentee ballots to a central location in an effort -- sort of like to have a vote taking place, showing democracy in action; that even though they're overseas, they are still voting in their elections. Has any thought been given to something like that?
MR. ABELL: We have not considered that at this point. Again, we want this voting process to be one that is not a burden to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. And they know how to use the local mail system in their units, and that's what we want them to do. This would actually probably cause us security concerns and soldiers or sailors, airmen and Marines to go out of their way to cast a ballot. It has a certain public affairs appeal, but I doubt that it's something that we -- we have not considered and I doubt it is something we would look to seriously.
Q How long do you expect the entire process to take, from the sorting to the redistributing to actually getting to the military men and women?
MR. VOGEL: Generally speaking, it would take no more than three days to get it from any point in the United States through a gateway and onto transportation. And transportation -- depends on the distance -- usually 12 hours. So, tops, worst-case scenario should be four days from any place in the United States to any handoff point in a foreign country to the military.
Then I'd turn it back to you.
MR. ABELL: Us delivering it -- from that point on, it has priority transportation, whether that's a military aircraft or a contract aircraft or whether it's a truck convoy. Depending on where it has to go, mail has priority. The local commands are well aware of that. But that piece is the variable piece based on the local conditions.
MR. VOGEL: And by putting in that Express Mail process that we talked about, the four-day process that I mentioned within the United States should be one day.
Q Four days is the worst-case scenario.
MR. VOGEL: Four days is the absolute worst-case scenario that I can think of. And the expedited process should narrow that down; that should take three days out of the process.
STAFF: All right, thank you very much.
Q Thanks, gentlemen.
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