(First in a three-part series)
Staff Sgt. Missouri Ludlum wanted to vote. The system got in the way.
After arriving at Camp Darby, Italy, in 2004, the self-described political junkie wanted to throw her lot into the upcoming presidential election. But information on the government’s voting assistance Web site confused the then-20-year-old. She spoke to superiors who offered generalities, and her unit’s voting assistance officer was of little help.
"I didn’t even understand how to do anything with being an overseas voter," Ludlum said. "I kept running into walls where I couldn’t get any information. Eventually, I just gave up and said I’d try again next time."
From airmen in Italy to Marines and soldiers in Iraq to sailors in Japan, troops overseas face a diverse and complicated system when trying to make their voices heard on Election Day.
Say there are three soldiers at FOB Justice in Baghdad who spend every day together for 15 months and all want to vote.
Their home states have different requirements for them to register and cast a ballot. The private from Kansas can receive his ballot via e-mail or fax. His buddy comes from Arkansas, where traditional mail is the only option. Their first sergeant hails from Arizona and faces a boatload of requirements as an existing or first-time absentee voter. Deadlines and other factors also vary.
Each absentee ballot request has to be sent to the county where a voter last lived. If the Kansas private sends his ballot request to the wrong address or forgets some piece of required information, or just screws up part of the application, his ballot request might be rejected altogether by the county election official.
"If they’re lucky, they’ll be contacted in time to get that information and get it back," said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a voter advocacy group. "The likelihood is that it won’t get done in time."
Navigating this patchwork of state and local election laws is made harder by a lack of electronic voting alternatives for a fighting force now spread around the globe, often in spots where traditional mail isn’t as reliable as an Internet connection.
Critics say a clash of state and federal law along with Defense Department misfires on voting projects have prevented reforms that would make the process much easier.
These problems are not new and will be around after the next president takes office in January.
Ludlum said it took her about a year to figure out what she needed to do to get a ballot from her California home county, and it was too late for the 2004 election.
This year, she doesn’t know if her vote was counted in her state’s primary because her ballot arrived in Italy just days before it was due back in the States.
"It was supposed to be [back] to my county on June 3, because that’s when all the voting was," she said. "I didn’t even get my ballot until the last week of May.
"I don’t even know if my vote made it. I hope it did."
The Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program assists all military and civilian Americans overseas.
But while the agency is responsible for helping those Americans abroad to vote, each voter is still subject to voting requirements from their last state of residence, and the federal government can’t legally tell states how to run elections.
That puts FVAP in limbo between state and federal jurisdictions, where critics say it has no power to push the changes needed to better serve overseas voters.
"FVAP has been put in the worst situation of any military commander," Bob Carey of the National Defense Committee, a military voter advocacy group, said. "They’ve been given all the responsibility and none of the authority."
A 2006 Government Accountability Office assessment agreed, reporting that "FVAP is limited in its ability to affect state and voting procedures because it lacks the authority to require states to take action on absentee voting initiatives."
"They get no carrot to entice [states] and no stick to compel them," Carey said. "We’ve set them up to fail."
Voting law may vary state to state, but the system isn’t complex for each individual voter because they only need to know their home state’s requirements, according to J. Scott Wiedemann, the FVAP’s deputy director.
While critics say FVAP’s hands are tied by its inability to mandate state law reform, some at the state level say the agency helps change overseas voting laws in other ways.
FVAP helped Minnesota pass a law this year allowing for the electronic transmission of ballot materials by fax and e-mail, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said. The agency pitched the e-voting option and lobbied state lawmakers to get it passed.
Fifty-one states or territories offer some form of electronic ballot transmission this year.
Through the past four elections, the DOD offered various electronic ballot transmission options for states to use in hopes of simplifying the overseas voting process and making it less dependent on traditional mail.
In all, FVAP spent nearly $35 million since 2000 on programs that it pitched to states, including a $25 million Internet voting project in 2004 that was axed before it began due to publicized security concerns. A hastily assembled replacement that year was available only to DOD-affiliated voters and was used by 17 people to download ballots.
State election officials complained during past elections that some FVAP initiatives did not include enough training, lead time or support to be effective. A new FVAP Web site was launched in July, with parts of it supposed to be ready for the primary season.
It’s unclear when the system will change in the name of simplicity for the troops, giving the phrase "our job is to protect democracy, not practice it" a 21st-century update.
Some troops vow they’ll vote in the presidential election this year.
Staff Sgt. Dean Ogle, stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, with the 730th Air Mobility Squadron, said he’s voting for the first time this fall and will send in an absentee ballot.
"I didn’t really pay attention in the past and felt there was no real reason," said Ogle, 25, of Clover, S.C. "I’m more into my military career now and figured I’d vote for what I feel is right."
Amid all the debate, glacial government reform and uncertainty regarding just how well overseas voters are served, Richard Rutledge is one disgruntled voter.
A retired Marine, Rutledge was active-duty and stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., for the 2004 contest. He was told by various officials that he could neither vote absentee nor cast a ballot on base.
"We were not allowed to vote," Rutledge said of himself and his wife. "I squawked to [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger, President Bush, my local party. After about three years of squawking, I gave up."
"No one responded," said Rutledge, now a contractor in Iraq. "No one cared."
If things were that hard while stateside, Rutledge said he can’t imagine the difficulties of navigating the system from Iraq.
But he won’t bother to find out this November.
"Since no one gave a [expletive] about my rights then, do you think I give a [expletive] about voting today?" he said. "The system is broken."
Stars and Stripes reporter Vince Little contributed to this story.
The series ...
Today: Overseas voting is not just a duty, it’s a chore
Day Two: Sometimes in war zones the challenge isn’t access to ballots, it’s motivation
Day Three: With big voting initiatives ineffective or delayed, small approaches are pursued
How many are out there?
It is difficult to figure out how well the overseas voting system works because election officials don’t know how many people are actually trying to vote.
There are an estimated 6.5 million Americans abroad, and about 990,000 of them requested ballots for the 2006 election, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Of that 990,000, 119,000 were military voters. That’s about 10 percent of the total overseas military population.
Out of the 119,000 ballots that troops requested, fewer than half — about 57,000 — were counted. That leaves about 62,000 ballots unaccounted for, equivalent to ballots going missing for everyone in Flagstaff, Ariz.
No one knows why this disparity exists between requested and counted ballots. Because of some laws mandating that an absentee ballot be sent to the registered address for two election cycles, it is unclear if those 2006 ballots were requested or automatically sent out because a voter didn’t change his or her address details with their home county.
"There is no way of knowing how many of these were actually requests for ballots in the 2006 election," according to a 2007 EAC report. "The quality of information regarding [overseas absentee ballots] is low."
Federal voting officials say servicemembers must do their part and ensure their last home county in the States has their current mailing address.
By the Numbers
The estimated number of Americans living overseas
The number of overseas absentee ballots requested for the 2006 election
The number of military dependents overseas
American civilians living overseas
The approximate number of federal civilian employees living overseas
The approximate number of U.S. troops living overseas
The number of ballots troops overseas requested for the 2006 election, roughly the number of people living in Columbia, S.C.
The percentage of those ballots that were successfully cast and counted, leaving about 62,000 ballots unaccounted for, roughly the equivalent of every citizen of Flagstaff, Ariz., losing their ballot.
Late primaries will delay ballots
Election officials in the States usually mail absentee ballots 30 to 45 days before Election Day, but 14 states are holding primaries in September or October, meaning ballots won’t be ready to go until after those elections. That could affect you getting your ballot in time.
The late scheduling of the Republican National Convention in the first week of September will also prevent ballots from being finalized earlier.
The Military Postal Service Agency recommends that voters downrange allow 60 days transit time to register, request and receive an absentee ballot via the Federal Post Card Application. In any case, register and request your absentee ballot as early as possible with your last stateside county of residence.
If your last state of residence is one of the 14 states with late state primaries, you should first check to see if you are allowed to fax or e-mail ballot materials.
If you are voting from one of those states, you can opt for the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, available at www.fvap.gov. That emergency ballot is available to all registered voters who don’t receive their state’s ballot in a timely manner.
Officials also recommend using the FWAB if you don’t get your ballot by the end of September. You must be registered to use the FWAB.
The following states and territories are holding late primaries this year, which may affect timely delivery of absentee ballots:
- Arizona: Sept. 2
- Delaware: Sept. 9
- Washington, D.C.: Sept. 9
- Guam: Sept. 6
- Hawaii: Sept. 20
- Louisiana: Oct. 4
- Massachusetts: Sept. 16
- Minnesota: Sept. 9
- New Hampshire: Sept. 9
- New York: Sept. 9
- Rhode Island: Sept. 9
- Vermont: Sept. 9
- Virgin Islands: Sept. 3
- Wisconsin: Sept. 9
— Geoff Ziezulewicz