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DoD News Briefing with Director, Federal Voting Assistance Program Brunelli and Deputy Director, Federal Voting Assistance Program Wiedmann

Presenters: Director, Federal Voting Assistance Program Pauline Brunelli and Deputy Director, Federal Voting Assistance Program Scott Wiedmann
August 15, 2008
MODERATOR: Good morning everyone, and welcome. It's a privilege to introduce to you today our briefers, which are Polli Brunelli, who is the director, and Scott Wiedmann, who is the deputy director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.  
         The FVAP program, as we call it, administers the federal responsibilities of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act for the secretary of Defense. And they are the president's designee, basically, for this action. And they have over 6 million servicemembers, military dependents and U.S. citizens abroad who are covered by the act and working with our program.
         So with that, I'm going to turn the time over to them. And I'm sure they have some information to provide you and then they'll answer some questions.
         Ms. Brunelli? 
                MS. BRUNELLI: Thank you. Good morning, everyone.  
         This is a wonderful opportunity for us to get out the word on absentee voting. What we want to do is make sure that all of our military members, their family members and all of our U.S. citizens residing outside the United States have an opportunity to vote.  
         We have a newly redesigned website, fvap.gov, that is user- friendly, has all of the information that anyone would need to register, request an absentee ballot. It has an interactive form for our voters to use. It's a simple process. All of our forms are up there, including the registration form and the federal write-in absentee ballot. Federal write-in absentee ballot is important to our voters. It's a backup ballot that they can use if their requested state ballot does not arrive in time for them to vote it and get it back by the state deadlines for counting.
         We've been working very closely with the states in eliminating barriers to absentee voting. The states administer elections. And so they pass legislation to benefit our voters. And we've been making incredible success in that regard.  
         Absentee voting can be by mail. There are also some alternatives that we've been working with the states for electronic alternatives for our voters. So many states have passed legislation that allows a voter to submit voting materials by fax or e-mail. Many states will allow the delivery of the blank ballot to the voter by fax or e-mail. And also states -- many states will allow the voter to return the voted ballot by fax or e-mail.
             As a matter of fact, blank ballot delivery by e-mail is -- includes 21 states and New Jersey, just this week, the governor signed legislation to allow election officials to deliver a blank ballot to our absentee voters and for the absentee voters to return the voted ballots. So we've -- the voted ballot by e-mail. It's incredible progress in that regard. So delivery of the blank ballot by e-mail, return of the voted ballot.  
         One of the things that we wanted to emphasize, we want to raise awareness of absentee voting, so we have all sorts of public affairs outreach efforts that we engage in, the military departments carrying out a very significant role, with voting assistance officers contacting our uniformed services members and their family members to inform them about absentee voting and to provide assistance and materials.  
         We also are emphasizing, just in the upcoming week, towards the end of the month, Armed Forces Voters Week, which is August 31st to September 2nd, and that's to inform our voters that this is a good time to register for an absentee ballot in the state where they are legal voting residents. We want to -- all the commands will be involved in this awareness outreach. We will have registration tables here at the Pentagon, and military installations, overseas organizations will also conduct awareness of absentee voting during this period. And of course, it will continue all the way up to the election.  
         We also want to talk about some of the projects that we're engaged in with -- for our voters and ask the states to participate with us. We have a project that's called the blank ballot delivery and registration. And what we are asking the states to do is to post a blank ballot on a secure server and allow the voters to download that and vote it and return it to the state.  
         One of the things that we want to make sure is that all of the information that our voters need is readily available. So we will continue to e-mail our voters. We have sent out e-mail blasts. We sent some out in January of this year to inform our voters about registration and voting in the primary elections. We sent that out to 1.3 million active duty members. 
        Also, the services had sent out e-mail blasts to their troops as well to inform them about registration and voting, and will continue with this process.
         Scott, would you like to talk about some of the other things that we're doing?
         MR. WIEDMANN: Well, in addition to help to move the mail, those individuals who are voting by mail, whether they're military and their family member is state side, who happened to be in the next county or somewhere else in the United States, or living overseas or stationed overseas, we want to work with -- we have worked with the U.S. Postal Service and the military postal service to expedite the movement of the ballots that are destined for APO/FPO addresses.  
         And what will be done for that is the localities, the local election officials all across the country will prepare the ballots, and when they're ready to be mailed, the U.S. Postal Service will pick those up and expedite delivery of those to the military gateways, either in New York, Miami or San Francisco. At that point, the military postal service agency will take charge and put them in specially marked trays and put them first on/first off the next transport plane to Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever the military member may be stationed, and it will have expedited delivery throughout the various military post offices and forward -- and all the way out to the forward-deployed units. 
         Likewise, on the return as it's coming back, it will get special handling all the way back to the military gateways here in the United States, the New York, Miami, San Francisco; and then the U.S. Postal Service will then pick it up and deliver it by first class mail back to the local election official up until the week leading up to the election, at which time the U.S. Postal Service will expedite delivery by using Express Mail to get them back to the localities to ensure that they arrive by the election deadline, which in most states is the day of the election or the close of polls on Election Day. 
         In addition to that, we have, as Polli mentioned, the federal write-in absentee ballot, which is the backup ballot. That is, any UOCAVA citizen, whether they're military or family member, state side or overseas, or any U.S. citizen outside the United States, is eligible to use the federal write-in absentee ballot for federal offices in their home state as long as they've requested a ballot from the state prior to that.    So we recommend that, starting in mid- to late September, an individual overseas typically knows how long it takes for mail to get from their location back to their home state. As soon as they get to the point where they know they have to get something in the mail to get it back by Election Day, that's the time when that voter should use the federal write-in absentee ballot, vote that for the federal offices and return it.  
         The federal law also provides that if their state ballots should come after that -- and that's typically a more complete ballot, it will have local and state offices on it as well -- that the voter can vote that and return it as well. And the local election offices have procedures in place so that only one ballot would count.  
         But the key is that for those who have requested ballots, the federal write-in absentee ballot is there so they're able to get that ballot in for election -- for the federal offices for the November election. 
             So there's no excuse for any voter to be able to say, I didn't vote because I never got my ballot. Because the ballot is already prepositioned at military installations, U.S. embassies and consulates and on our website, for voters to use.  
         In addition to that, in seeking out alternatives to provide for these citizens, because these citizens find themselves in many situations around the world, in forward-deployed military units, working for the Peace Corps and just general areas where regular mail service may be hard to come by, these voters seek out these electronic alternatives, as Polli mentioned, the fax and the e-mail.  
         In addition to that, our website has a feature on it which allows voters to log in and create an account on our website. When they create an account, they're then guided through the completion of the Federal Post Card Application which is the Registration/Absentee Ballot Request Form for their state.  
         Once they have completed it, they print it off. It's a PDF. They print it off and then sign it. Also along with the form is instruction pages, which will tell them the address for the locality as well as options, such as fax or e-mail, which may be available.  
         In addition to that, we're providing, to the states, the availability of a secure server, through which the voter can upload the ballot request to the state, and the state can provide the blank ballots through the secure server.  
         It's similar to a server in your office, where you can work on a document and save it to that server. And then someone else in your office, without e-mailing it directly to them, can go to that same server and pull it down.  
         The server is protected via password and username identity, for both the citizen users and the local election officials. As well the connection, between the citizen's computer and the local election official computer, is encrypted through SSL connections during those transactions.  
         So we offer that to the states. And we have several states that are looking into or are already having counties sign up, to allow the citizens to use that additional alternative.  
         So once again the mail is the primary method most of the voters use. Fax is out there. E-mail is out there, possibly using the secure server. We want to give the citizens as many opportunities, as many alternatives as possible, that are allowed by their state law, to communicate with that local election office.  
         MS. BRUNELLI: And again all of these voting materials are prepositioned, here in the United States at military installations and at embassies and consulates and organizations overseas.  
         So we have hard copy forms. We have the copy of the Voting Assistance Guide, on our website and also in distribution systems for our voters. And those are all of the procedures for absentee voting for any given state, the territories and D.C.  
         Q     How far away are we from just having these military members vote online, you know, when they're overseas?  
             MS. BRUNELLI: Well, we have -- there is legislation in place that speaks to doing Internet voting. And we are working with the Election Assistance Commission and they have a role to work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop standards for those kinds of systems, the voting systems. And we have provided the Election Assistance Commission with all of the project information and reports from our previous projects to assist them in developing those standards.  
         Once those standards are developed, we will go ahead in the Department of Defense to build a system with the input from the state and local election officials. We had a voting over the Internet pilot project in 2000, small proof of concept, very successful, that led to legislation on the Hill for us to continue these types of projects. And whenever we do those types of projects, we always bring the election officials in to make sure that we're -- what we're doing and what we're building complies with their state laws and regulations.  
         So it'll be an interesting project to do. It's for the future. But we're also working on that, that we have a timeline. Once we receive the Election Assistance information, then we can go ahead and execute that timeline and proceed with that system build.  
         Right now, of course, we're looking at alternatives for our voters to give them access and to leave it up to the voter and, of course, the states what that access will be.  
         Okay? So we're talking about faxing and e-mailing in the interim process and that project which allows a blank ballot to be posted on a secure server, all of those types of methods and moving the mail until we get to the technology project.
         Q     Do you think that would solve the problem? Because the problem right now is you're getting a really low turnout. Something like 5 percent of the ballots were actually counted in 2006. Do you think Internet voting would solve that issue, or is it just sort of an overall lack of will to vote? What do you think the real problem is?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Well, there are various statistics out there with different methodologies for gathering those data. What we're looking at, the Department has always been looking at ballot transit time; concerned about the amount of time that a voter has to get voting materials and to return them by the state deadlines for counting. And we've been working on that for a number of years. That's why you see a huge increase in state legislation here between the year 2000 and this year, with states doing electronic alternatives. So I think we've made terrific progress, and I think we're going to continue to do that.  
         And when we look at the Internet voting project, which will be in a few years, we hope that that will enhance participation. We have tools on our website right now, interactive tools to take someone -- to take a voter through the registration forms to make the process even easier.
        And it's a simple process. It's a matter of filling out a registration or ballot request form, sending it -- sending it in to the jurisdiction where the voter votes, getting a blank ballot and voting and return it. And as Scott was saying, we also have available for our voters the federal write-in absentee ballot overseas.  
         So there are all of these types of options for our voters. We want to make sure that they're aware of them. Certainly, our website is a good source of information. And certainly, our voting assistance officers are out there working really hard to get the word out and doing a tremendous job in doing that.
         It's all about awareness and education and information so that the voters know where to go for assistance and can receive their materials, either electronically or by hard copy.
         Q     So if I understand you correctly, the new website doesn't allow servicemembers to vote. What it does is allows them to register to vote and they can get an absentee ballot.
         MS. BRUNELLI: Correct.
         Q     Some of the -- when you're in Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue, of course, is bandwidth. You don't have a lot of bandwidth. Do you have a low-bandwidth version for someone who's going to an MWR to fill this out?
         MS. BRUNELLI: We've looked into that, and we've asked for tests at the MWR facilities in Iraq. And so far, the feedback has been very positive. So I think we should be okay with that.
         Q     And when you say -- for someone who's living on a small combat outpost or patrol base, perhaps they don't have ready access to a computer. Maybe the -- they may have one unclassified; the rest are classified. How are they going to get their absentee ballots?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Well, if they cannot receive the mail -- and I would guess that they get mail at some point -- what we ask our voters to do is plan ahead. And we have many states out there that also provide an advance ballot for individuals in just those situations. And the states will provide a state write-in absentee ballot the individual can request, in some states, as early as 180 days before the election or closer. Also, for those individuals who are in these remote areas, we do have the federal write-in absentee ballot available for them. And so they can send that in any time after they submit their registration form. So if the mail is unpredictable and a voter wants to send in a federal write-in absentee ballot to their local jurisdiction, the voter can send that in the September time frame.  
         It's up to the voter to realize what the mail is like or what the e-mail alternatives are, what the faxing alternatives are, but we'll do anything we can to help that voter get access to information.
        So prepare them in advance, and the voting assistance officers, I think, have been doing very well at the deployment site and in processing sites to make sure that the voters are informed of all of the alternatives and options for them.
         Q    Polli, is there a particular reason in this election why there wasn't -- or you didn't repeat the demonstration project with Internet voting?   Apparently the last time around you learned some things about how that works. Was there a particular decision made not to repeat that again so you could focus on these other resources right now, or what was the thinking behind that?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Well, with the Internet voting project, that legislation is in place, and we do have to rely on those standards being put in place by the Election Assistance Commission, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and then we will go forward. In the interim, we have been doing other projects to reach out to our voters before we get to that full-scale process of registration, ballot request, blank ballot delivery and voting over that system. So, a few years, a couple of years.
         MR. WIEDMANN: In fact, the feature we have on our website that we described, allowing for the uploading of the ballot request and the provision of the blank ballot, is very similar to what we did in 2004 and 2006. In those years it was somewhat limited access, to military members, federal government -- or DOD employees overseas, DOD contractors overseas who had access to a DOD database. However, this year we've taken that same idea and opened it up to all citizens who are covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.  
         So, anyone can do that, still following some DOD security parameters as far as secure messaging, which is the reason for the password and the sign-in for access to that secure service. So that is carrying on that same type of --
         Q     So are the remaining challenges technical and security related? Can you characterize that for us? (Inaudible) -- actually doing. The other -- (inaudible) -- said that some of the considerations now are coming up with the standards and working with NIST and working with the other office that you mentioned on this Internet voting project. Are the remaining challenges security and technical in nature? 
                MR. WIEDMANN: Well, I would say we're continuing to improve in all of the various methods for ballot transmittal, both by mail, working closely with the U.S. Postal Service and military postal service agency. That process has consistently improved, especially for Iraq and Afghanistan, over the years. In addition, the faxing, as Polli mentioned, many more states are now allowing the use of these alternatives as they realize that not everyone may be able to get a piece of mail in the time allotted by the state law.  
         And of course, in addition, the federal law does say that we are -- that the Department of Defense will do another Internet voting project, but we cannot do that until those -- the --
         MS. BRUNELLI: Guidelines.
         MR. WIEDMANN: -- guidelines are in place that the Election Assistance Commission is working on with NIST.
             Q     Why is it so important that servicemembers participate in the voting process, in your words, then?
         MS. BRUNELLI: We want everyone to participate in the voting process: our servicemembers, their family members and all of our overseas citizens. It's voting outreach to let them know that they are eligible to participate in this democratic process.
         And it's important to them. It's important to their families. And voting is not something we can make our voters do. If they choose to vote, then we want to make sure that they have those opportunities to vote. So it is up to the voter to decide what they want to do. We want to make sure they have the information and the means to do so, if they choose to vote.
         Q     Thank you.
         Q     You spoke earlier about how there are a lot of numbers about participation rates and all that. I think one of the numbers is -- you put out a number, 73 percent, I think.
         MS. BRUNELLI: Yes.
         Q     Can you explain what that number is? And how do you reconcile that number with the other numbers, from critics who say that the voting rates are lower and that the votes aren't being counted when they come back to the states?
         MS. BRUNELLI: I'll let Scott answer that, I think.
         MR. WIEDMANN: Well, the 73 percent number is from the 2004 election. And that was from a survey that was done directly to military members. And of those who responded to the survey, 73 percent said they had cast a ballot, either in person or by absentee ballot in that election.  
         Some of the other numbers that have been in the media more recently are regarding the 2006 election and with the Election Assistance Commission survey. Now, the Election Assistance Commission is required to do a census, if you will, of the states after each election year, where the localities actually report to the state level and the state then reports to the Election Assistance Commission on the number of the ballots that were requested and then received back to be cast for the election.    And in 2006, they had about a 50 percent or so response rate from the localities across the country for a variety of reasons. And the numbers that were published in their report did say that they were incomplete and replete with errors.
         So we want to be careful when we're looking at some of the data that's used in those reports. And we're working with them to try to make sure that the data is as sound as possible for the 2008 election as well as our numbers, to be sure our numbers are sound so that as we go forward we have the best information as possible to continue to make improvements.
         What we do with the numbers that we get is we do a report to President -- to the president and Congress on how we've done. One of the requirements are the participation rates, but we really look at how well the information got out, how well people were able to receive the information. Were they able to vote?
        Did they get their registration form? Did they get their ballot? And were they able to successfully participate in the election if they wished to?  
         Q     Aren't self-reporting numbers always skewed towards those who are willing to actually send back the information? And so therefore there may be greater numbers that don't actually reflect what -- 
         MR. WIEDMANN: I'm not a statistician. Obviously there's many things that can skew various results.  
         It could be skewed either way. You could argue that only the people who are upset are the ones that respond. And the ones that were happy with the system didn't respond to the survey. So you could see that in either way. But that -- those were sound statistical principals that were used for many years, when we were doing our survey.  
         What we have done this year, working with the Defense Manpower Data Center, is to improve the processes and the methodologies used in gathering the data. So for the 2008 election, we feel that we'll have the best data ever and most extrapolatable to the entire population.  
         Q     Do you have a breakdown, between domestic and overseas voting, of the response rates?  
         MS. BRUNELLI: We do from our 2004 report. And it's the same for overseas military and stateside.  
         Q     That number is.  
         MS. BRUNELLI: 73 percent. (Off mike.) And again it's a random sample. And we're using the latest statistical methods to improve that process. Because what we're looking for is the most accurate and complete data that we can gather. We want to have that so that we can properly assess our program, evaluate what we're doing and go forward, with projects and programs that correspond with those voting experiences.  
         Q     So 73 percent overseas voted in 2004. 73 percent domestic voted in 2004. Do you have any breakdown specifically to Iraq and Afghanistan in '04? And then do you have any early projections for '08? How many ballots have been requested? Anything like that?  
         MS. BRUNELLI: I'm sorry, we don't. I don't have any projections for that. We'll be doing our survey towards the end of the year. It's scheduled to land -- the survey -- scheduled to land at the voters' mailing address or e-mail close to the election, so we can capture the fresh voting experiences.  
         So we'll know some time next year what that participation rate is and what the voting experiences were. And then we'll use that information to direct our program. And some of that information of course will be used to formulate policies. So I'm sorry, but we don't have that information right now.  
         Q     According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, for 2006, there were 119,000 overseas ballots asked for, for overseas troops. And 57,000 were cast. So that's about half.  
         Do you have a goal for this election cycle? As in, do you want to do more than the last election cycle?  
             MS. BRUNELLI: What we want to do is make sure that people know about absentee voting and know how to do it. Interest in the election depends on -- it's up to the individual voter. So when we're looking at participation rates, we're looking to see how many people executed those ballots. We're interested in voting, but what we're really concerned about is -- and we don't use that as a sole indicator of how successful the program is, because we can't force anyone to vote. As I said before, it's up to them to do so. So we can give them the means. 
         And when we look at our statistics, we ask our voters, "Did you vote? If you didn't, why didn't you vote?" And we look at that question and gather that information to determine whether or not the voter wanted to vote or not. And if the voter didn't want to vote, why not? If the voter tried to vote and wasn't successful, what do we need to do? Do we need to work with the states on legislation that would benefit those voters and break down barriers to absentee voting?
         Q     What were some of the main reasons for not wanting to vote in past surveys?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Some did not have interest in the election.
         Q     Did anyone put down that because they would have to vote absentee, their vote basically wouldn't be counted in many states? Was that something that was a high level of concern?
         MS. BRUNELLI: We did ask that question, and I think it was a very low level of concern, if I remember correctly. And what we are doing with our information program is want to make sure that our absentee voters have confidence in the process and that they know that if they properly execute their ballot, that it will be counted. And when we're getting that information out to them, what we're saying is, if you do everything that the state asks you to do in returning that ballot, that ballot will be counted. And so that's where we're looking at those electronic alternatives, too, to make sure those ballots can get back by the state deadlines for counting.
         Q    Do you have any early indications -- I know you said that you don't have any projections for this election coming up, but do you have any early feel right now as to the degree of participation that you're going to get, given the fact that there's so much -- there's been, you know, huge increases in voter registration stateside, a lot of interest in this election? 
                We had a statistic this morning about the members of the military who are contributing to one candidate or another. Do you have any early feel that this is going to be an unusually large participation on the part of voters overseas? And is that going to help the use of this particular system and these resources you've put in place
         MS. BRUNELLI: Well, we do have some early feedback -- you know, it's anecdotal -- from the election officials. We attend conferences and we brief the program, and then we engage in information exchanges with election officials.
        And there has been an increased participation in the primaries. And the states have been telling us -- more people voting in the primaries than they have seen in previous years.
         So we think that that will lead to increased participation in the November election, so -- if that's what we're going to use as an indicator. But the feeling and the interest is up to the individual voter. To be motivated to vote is an individual type of thing.
         And what we expect will happen that the people who -- our absentee voters who already submitted a ballot request form will automatically get their ballots for the general election in November. And then we think that there will also be increased interest here in the next couple months as people are motivated to vote, thus the reason for Armed Forces Voters Week in September to generate that interest and let people know the November election is coming up.
         So it's constant throughout the year. Indeed, we've been working on this for the last couple years, to make sure that people knew that they had an opportunity to vote in the primary elections and to engage those voters. And it looks like that's been a successful effort on the part of the states and the Department of Defense and other federal agencies, State Department, that works with us in voting outreach. So we're very optimistic.
         Q     It sounds like if you're on a remote base in Iraq or Afghanistan, the best way to get an absentee ballot may be mail. I know the mail can be backlogged when you have groups send a lot of care packages to troops. Are you making any efforts to de-conflict, to make sure that when the -- when people are trying to submit ballots, that there isn't this logjam in the mail?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Oh, yes. Well, we have a priority and special handling for those ballots in November. And what we're doing is the Military Postal Service Agency is working with the U.S. Postal Service to expedite ballots to the APOs and FPOs. And that process starts September 1st and goes through November 25th, because we have a number of states that will allow late counting of ballots from overseas to give our voters enough time to get their ballots back.
         And then what we're going to have is express mailing of ballots from 29 October to the 4th of November, to make sure those ballots get back through the APOs and into the election officials' offices. And that's priority marking and bundling and tracking of these ballots,    handled before other mail to make sure, because it is dated material -- right -- they have to move very quickly. So we want to make sure to move through that process very quickly. 
        So a lot of care and attention to making sure these ballots get overseas.
         Q     How much money is set aside specifically for voter assistance programs within the DOD, U.S. military, for outreach programs?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Our overall budget is around 4.5 million.
         Q     Per year?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Yes.
         Q     Do you support -- I believe it's Senator Cornyn's proposal to get -- to pay Fed Ex to help with the shipment of ballots and expedite that process? Is that necessary, do you think, or can it be done? Can it be handled otherwise?
         MR. WIEDMANN: Well, in fact the Military Postal Service Agency does use several private contractors in various areas around; I believe there's about 92 countries that they service in various places with the APO/FPO addresses. And where the military transport planes aren't the quickest or most expedient method of getting the mail back to the U.S., they will actually already and do use various private commercial carriers to do that, in my understanding.
         Q     That would be a good thing, then?
         MR. WIEDMANN: Yes, absolutely.
         Q     Going back to your anecdotal primary material, there's no way to break that down between domestic absentee voters -- overseas absentee voters, is there?
         MS. BRUNELLI: Not right now. The states will be collecting that information. And that's an ongoing data collection process. So they are the ones who know how many registration forms and ballot request forms have gone into their states requesting ballots. So they have all of those data.
         MODERATOR: Thank you much, folks. Appreciate it.
         MS. BRUNELLI: Thank you. 
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