Thursday, September 28, 2006

Overseas voting a concern — again

Overseas voting a concern — again
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Six years after problems counting overseas votes clouded the 2000 presidential election, U.S. troops and other Americans abroad face tight timetables and emerging technologies that still make it difficult to have their votes counted.

•Fourteen states with September primaries risk getting absentee ballots out too late for remote voters to return them in time.

•Efforts to speed things by using e-mail and fax machines pose a risk to voters' confidentiality.

•websites intended to help overseas voters navigate the process are not widely used. A private group's site was taken down earlier this month in a contract dispute.

The problems with timing and technology concern federal election officials, who try to ensure that overseas votes are counted on time. An estimated 29% of troops who wanted to vote did not get absentee ballots in 2000 or received them too late.

About 3.7 million Americans live overseas, and more than 400,000 members of the military are stationed or deployed overseas. In 2004, Pentagon officials estimate, 58% of Americans abroad voted, compared with overall turnout of 60%. Military participation overseas was estimated at 75%.

Those figures are disputed by the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the Government Accountability Office because of the sample size and response rate.

"You cut the time so short that people start getting disenfranchised," says Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the EAC, which held a hearing in St. Louis last week on issues concerning overseas voting. "This problem needs to be addressed nationwide."

The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing on the issue for today.

The biggest problem is timing. Polly Brunelli, director of the Pentagon's Federal Voting Assistance Program, and other experts say there should be 45 days between the time ballots are sent to voters and when completed ballots are received at election offices. Only 40 days remain until the Nov. 7 general election.

Congress has approved $2.5 million for the expansion of Web technologies, including e-mail and secure-server transactions. Those methods risk voters' privacy.

Fewer than one in five uniformed military personnel know about Pentagon websites, according to a March report by the Pentagon's inspector general. And the Overseas Vote Foundation's website, which helps users register and request ballots, recently had to be taken down and reconfigured.

DeGregorio says the problems may require legislation setting deadlines for states to send out ballots. Internet voting deserves another look, after a $22 million project was scrapped in 2004, he says. "I believe the technology can be found to fix this problem," he says.

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