Saturday, October 02, 2004

Democrats Voice Concerns About the Overseas Vote

The New York Times
October 2, 2004

Democrats Voice Concerns About the Overseas Vote

Amid new evidence that civilians lagged far behind soldiers in voting from abroad four years ago, political operatives on both sides of the presidential campaign raced this week to help Americans overseas cast their ballots in time for next month's election.

Sixty percent of the overseas military voted in the 2000 election, up from 53 percent in 1996, according to a new Pentagon report obtained yesterday by The New York Times. At the same time, voting by civilians dropped to 22 percent from 29 percent, the report said.

Civilians' low participation rate is raising fears among Democrats who believe that these estimated 3.9 million eligible voters are more likely than members of the military to support John Kerry over President Bush. It is also fueling concern that the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which the Pentagon manages for all overseas voters, may be doing more to help the estimated 500,000 members of the military overseas. Pentagon officials have denied such accusations.

In a meeting with Pentagon aides Wednesday, Democratic Party officials who were briefed on the participation rates urged the voting program managers to post substitute federal write-in ballots on the Internet and so make it easier for civilians who are having trouble getting absentee ballots from their home states.

Local election offices in at least 8 of 15 swing states had failed to mail out their ballots by Sept. 19, the cutoff for ensuring that those ballots can be mailed back in time to be counted.

The Pentagon activated a system last week that will enable military voters to obtain their regular ballots from their local election offices instantly through a new Internet site, The Pentagon said it could not open the system to civilians because it was employing a military database to confirm the identities of users and did not have the means to check civilians.

"American citizens abroad should be extended equal rights," said Jack Corrigan, an adviser to the Democratic National Committee who attended the Pentagon meeting.

Mr. Corrigan quoted Pentagon officials as saying that while they could not offer the same balloting service to civilians, they would look into posting the substitute federal write-in ballot. The substitute write-in ballot is also available from embassies and consulates, but voting assistance groups say some outposts are running out of forms.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed yesterday that the request that the ballot be posted online was being considered. In previous interviews, program officials defended their efforts and denied that they were favoring military voters.

A group supporting Mr. Kerry, Americans Overseas for Kerry, said it would post the ballot on its own Web site.

"We consulted with our lawyers, and they said the worst that could happen is that local election officials would reject them," said Jim Brenner, the group's executive director.

The group Republicans Abroad said it planned to run advertisements in numerous international newspapers urging Americans overseas to cast their votes immediately by obtaining a write-in ballot.

Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, sent a memorandum to secretaries of state on Thursday urging them to see that their ballots are mailed out to military personnel as soon as possible, and to consider various options, including the new project, to resolve mailing problems. The Pentagon said that it had signed up 10 states to participate in the effort but that 23 others had declined to do so, citing various concerns including security.

Another overseas voting advocacy group, the nonpartisan Overseasvote2004, said it had forwarded concerns to the State Department about information provided by several of its outposts abroad. The group said that the United States Embassy in Argentina had a recorded message telling voters they had to register to vote three months before the election, and that people calling the embassy in the Dominican Republic were told they needed to register before obtaining a ballot but were not given information about registering. A State Department spokesman did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.

Asked about the declining participation among civilians, Mr. Corrigan, the Democratic adviser, said the party was confident that Mr. Kerry would do well among military voters and that civilian participation would rise this year.

"I don't know what happened in 2000," he said.