Lots of Bullets, Not Enough Ballots

By Captain Chas Henry, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

And while the sentiment has been echoed many times since, military overseas voting is still conducted essentially as it was during that Korean War-era election: a multi-step process almost entirely reliant on numerous pieces of paper moving through less-than-speedy postal systems.

While virtually everyone involved in the process seems to agree that military people deserve at least equal opportunity when it comes to having their votes counted, indications are that in November 2008 many thousands of service members who try to vote will do so in vain.

Worrisome? Depends Whom You Ask

The key problems have always been time, distance, and mobility. "The military voter," says Samuel Wright, "is frequently, if you'll excuse the expression, a moving target." Wright, a recently retired Navy Reserve captain, has fought the military voting rights battle for nearly 30 years.

Absentee voting from overseas is also complicated, involving—notes Brenda Farrell of the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—"registering, requesting a ballot, receiving the ballot, correctly completing the ballot, and returning the ballot to the appropriate election official." Each step, in most cases, requires forms and ballots be sent back and forth by mail. It is not difficult to anticipate problems when states print ballots just weeks before an election, then put them into a postal system requiring 18 days out—the average time it takes a piece of mail to reach a military voter—and 18 days back.

In 2006, 1.4 million people in uniform were eligible to vote by absentee ballot; not all of them were overseas, but many thousands were. A million of their family members were eligible, too. Add the estimated 3.5 million other Americans outside the country, and the total number of potential absentee voters neared 6 million.

"A million ballots were sent out, almost, to those voters," reports Rosemary Rodriguez, chair of the independent, bipartisan Election Assistance Commission (EAC) created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. "But only 300,000 were actually counted," she says. Election officials told the EAC that some ballots never made it to those who requested them. Others weren't returned on time, or did make it back but were not filled out exactly right.

Those figures differ starkly from a more sanguine estimate of absentee voting compiled by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), a Department of Defense agency. Created in 1986 by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), the voting assistance program was placed within DOD because it was military voters Congress sought most to accommodate. The program's staff of 15 or so is supposed to facilitate military and overseas voters' participation in federal elections.

"The military voted at a rate of 73 percent" in 2004, claims FVAP Deputy Director Scott Wiedmann, basing his estimate on post-election survey responses from 15,026 military men and women. "There were actually another six percent that attempted to vote," he adds, "for a total of 79 percent voting participation."

"We have some concerns about that survey," says Farrell, who heads GAO inquiries into military personnel issues. Most troubling, she says, are its low response rates and lack of critical analysis. "There are techniques that DOD could have applied through analysis to make the projections more likely to be accurate, and those were not taken."

GAO is not alone in questioning FVAP estimates. The Defense Manpower Data Center—in a 2007 study of 30,000 active-duty service members—reported that just 22 percent voted in 2006. Military voting advocates claim it all adds up to a stark and disturbing disenfranchisement of military service members. "In the general population," says Bob Carey, a senior fellow with the National Defense Committee (NDC), a private advocacy group, "about 85 percent of the absentee ballots that are requested are actually cast. In the military, only about 25 percent." Carey estimates the low return rate kept more than 400,000 military people from making their voices heard at the polls in 2006.

Getting Out (Enough of) the Vote?

Through posters and other means, the voting assistance program works to raise voting consciousness. More important, it coordinates the network of voting assistance officers, assigned on top of full-time duties to help others request and cast ballots. The effect is spotty; some work hard at the task, others have little time to devote.

DOD Inspector General's office surveys since 2002 have consistently shown that fewer than half of the military men and women questioned knew who provided voting assistance in their units. In addition, IG reports reveal trends indicating reduced awareness of voting assistance efforts. Also documented is marginal compliance with military service regulations requiring specific distribution of Federal Post Card Applications (FPCA) used to request ballots and Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots (FWAB) that voters can fill out and mail if hometown ballots have not arrived in time.

Persistent problems led the IG in 2005 to term the FVAP "not effective" at training voters nor in disseminating information and voting materials. Criticizing the concept of collateral-duty voting assistance officers, the report concluded, "senior leadership can expect significant improvement only if a radically different approach is applied."

The NDC and others have questioned the effectiveness of a key FVAP information tool—its text-heavy, not-so-easily navigated Web site ( www.fvap.gov ). While $600,000 has been committed to upgrade the web presence, improvements were still not available to potential voters during May 2008. In the meantime, the nonprofit Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF)—partnering with the NDC—has created an alternative for a fraction of the cost. Using a $100,000 grant from the Pew Center for the States, the OVF site ( www.overseasvotefoundation.org ), incorporating intuitive, pull-down menu design, allows potential voters to easily complete then print for signature only those forms specifically required by their state, territory, even county.

You Can't Over- State the Role of States

Elections in the United States are the province of the states, counties, and territories, thus limiting help the federal government can provide federal troops, even when they are voting for candidates to federal office.

"There are 7,838 local election offices in the United States," says retired Captain Wright. "I counted 'em." Adds the GAO's Farrell: "When you think of all the states and all the territories having different rules, for something that seems common, the right to vote, it is a little overwhelming."

Even when employing such common forms as the FPCA and FWAB, service members need to understand that state laws differ on how each should be filled out. If they don't do it the way prescribed by their hometown election officials, the forms can be tossed aside.

"The state requirements are very nuanced and very complicated," says the EAC's Rodriguez. "One of the states cannot accept ballots that are sent [or] returned by Federal Express. It has to be the U.S. Mail. What kind of law is that? I mean, how does that facilitate participation by the military voter?" While wielding few carrots or sticks to influence the conduct of state or municipal elections, FVAP staffers say they do what they can to encourage election officials to consider the plight of military voters.

"Occasionally there might be a candidate suing to get their name on the ballot," says the FVAP's Wiedmann, "or there might be a weather event that could cause a ballot to be sent out late, and when that happens, we work with the state for a remedy for that particular election." When it appears election officials are not complying with overseas absentee voting act rules—most frequently that ballots must, at a minimum, be mailed no later than 30 days before a state's return deadline—the FVAP can alert Justice Department prosecutors.

"The Civil Rights Division has brought more than 30 enforcement lawsuits under UOCAVA," says Justice Department spokesperson Jamie Hais. "Since 2000 we have brought suits against nine states and successfully resolved threatened violations without the need for litigation with many other states."

But according to a former Justice Department attorney who spent more than two years handling such cases, those actions typically resulted after election officials essentially turned themselves in. "Many of those prosecutions were pursued," says Eric Eversole, "after an election official admitted infractions when answering survey questions distributed by the FVAP. If election officials aware of potential violations simply chose to not return the survey, it's very possible such violations would not come to the attention of federal prosecutors." 

Why Not Vote Online?

Billions of dollars travel on digital networks every day. Classified documents do, too. So why are military voters still required to send ballots through the mail? "If electronic systems are secure enough for huge sums of money," asks Captain Wright, "and for our nation's most important secrets, why cannot we have, in the 21st century, a system whereby the deployed service member could receive, mark, and return his ballot by secure electronic means?"

"Because there's money at stake." reasons the EAC's Rodriguez, "the banking system invests a whole lot of money in security of that money. And there's a lot less money to invest in voting equipment, regrettably."

About a dozen states will this year use e-mail or fax to send ballots to voters. Recipients will still have to return marked ballots by mail. For most voters, though, the process will continue to require back-and-forth mailing of registration forms, ballot requests, and ballots. Tests to determine the potential of online voting have been inauspicious.

In 2004, Congress directed DOD to develop an Internet-based absentee voting demonstration project and the EAC to develop project guidelines. The 2004 Interim Voting Assistance System, which allowed voters to request and receive ballots securely, cost $576,000 and resulted in delivery of 17 ballots to potential voters. In 2006, the Integrated Voting Alternative Site allowed voters to request ballots. It cost $1.1 million; researchers were able to trace eight voted ballots to the test. In reviewing the efforts, GAO researchers noted "two presidential elections passing without significant progress in moving toward expanded use of electronic and Internet absentee voting."

Concerns about security and paper trails brought those tests to an end. The EAC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are presently looking into such worries. It is expected that a NIST report, likely to be released after the coming election, will recommend e-mailing ballots to voters, while still requiring they be returned by mail.

Red or Blue Voters? Or Red, White, and Blue?

If and when military voters are able to cast ballots, do their votes favor one party over another and really add up? A political scientist who studies the military says, counter to some conventional wisdom, service men and women do not vote as a bloc.

"What you find," says Peter Feaver of Duke University, "is a military that more or less tracks the demographics from which it comes." That is, people will vote generally like civilian counterparts of the same age, education, and ethnicity—though probably skewing just a bit more conservative than the norm in each group. And while career military people—a relatively small percentage of the total force—have tended to vote Republican in greater numbers, the leaning may not be hard and fast.

"One survey [of] the same population every year has shown a steady erosion in that identity with the Republican Party," notes Feaver. "And if that survey is representative of what's going on in the broader force, then some of these previous findings may represent high water marks, rather than a continuing trend."

While the numbers of potential military voters might seem impressive, added to the national bucket, they represent just a drop. "The military vote by itself is not likely to be decisive, in all but a few locales," confirms Feaver. "That being said, the military vote is symbolic of a national security vote," including, he notes, families of service members and others with ties to defense issues.

And what of rumors over the years that some administrations have done everything they can to encourage a military vote and others have held back? Feaver says they are likely urban myths. He recalls the bipartisan uproar that resulted when Democratic Party activists took tentative steps to aggressively challenge military absentee votes in Florida during the tightly contested 2000 election. Democratic Party leaders quickly squashed the activists' plan. "If you got caught trying to dampen the military vote in any way," warns Feaver, "the consequences would be horrific for you—the political consequences of the outcry—even if you were able to shave a vote here or there."

Light at the End of the Ballot Box

More likely by default than design, the system by which many military people will try to vote this year will exclude too many. And in the states, there is little talk of reform.

"Elected officials," says the National Defense Committee's Carey, "were elected by the current laws, which disenfranchise military personnel. And the military personnel don't represent that big of a voting bloc." They are also a group unable, by law and military custom of deference to civil authority, to advocate on their own behalf for better ballot box access.

If change is to take place, it might take the shape of top-down reform—Congress, for instance, identifying a federal class of voters and instituting common rules for handling their votes. A bottom-up approach could find states—much as they did when, among themselves, they agreed on a Uniform Commercial Code—agreeing to a common set of laws for treating absentee ballots received from military and overseas voters.

Change, however, frequently challenges political equities. Some strategists worry about creating precedents that further ease any form of absentee voting. State and county election officials say they wish they could help, but don't have the resources. While a handful of small changes may help dozens or hundreds vote more easily this election cycle, it appears any wide-scale online voting is far off.

As hundreds of thousands of men and women serving their country try to vote this election year, defense leaders seem convinced most will be able. "There's definitely the opportunity for every military member and every overseas citizen to take part in the process," affirms FVAP Deputy Director Wiedmann. Many others, though, worry that the votes of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will in the end not be counted.

"If anybody should be receiving their ballots and able to vote without any problems, it should be the military voter," stresses the EAC's Rodriguez.

When President Truman raised alarm bells about military voting during the Korean War, he asked Congress for helpful, temporary legislation—certain that states and territories, given time, would rectify the biggest problems. But interest waned, as it has time and again after subsequent conflicts. As Americans again prepare to make their voices heard at the polls, it is not clear how many of their countrymen in uniform will be able to equally exercise a privilege the Supreme Court in 1886 called "preservative of all other rights."

Mr. Henry received his too-late-to-count ballot for the 1980 presidential election while serving as a Marine at sea off Iran. Now a Washington, D.C.-based broadcast journalist, his television reporting on military voting can be seen at www.ChasHenry.com .

 

 

Captain Henry was a Marine public affairs officer. He now covers defense, intelligence, and homeland security for Washington, D.C. television outlets ABC7 and NewsChannel 8.

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