Efforts made to break logjam on voting
August 26, 2008
(Last in a three-part series)
As Election Day looms, smaller public and private entities are taking their own steps to help overseas voters in the face of federal government efforts they characterize as high-cost, low-use and chronically late.
The Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program spent more than $30 million on electronic voting initiatives since 2000 with varying levels of success to give overseas Americans better options for absentee voting.
Pat Hollarn is one of the people trying something new this year, and she’s no stranger to being an ocean away from the ballot box.
As an Air Force wife, Hollarn spent years at overseas assignments. That’s part of the motivation for Operation BRAVO, a pilot program she’s helping launch this fall that will bring voting kiosks to communities at RAF Mildenhall, England, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The kiosks will allow voters registered in Okaloosa County, Fla. — where Hollarn is elections head — to cast their ballot via laptop. They will be sent via secure e-mail to Okaloosa’s election offices once all the ballots are cast.
Hollarn said she’s doing this to prove there are viable electronic voting alternatives for overseas and military voters, who she calls "the overlooked Americans." But there are other reasons.
"One of the reasons that spurred me to do this is the millions and millions the DOD has spent with the Federal Voting Assistance Program," she said last year. "It hasn’t accomplished a dang thing. We can do it for a whole lot less money with a whole lot better results."
A 2004 FVAP system, costing more than $500,000 and used by 17 people, was introduced just a few months before Election Day. It replaced a $25 million Internet voting project that was abruptly canceled earlier that year amid publicized security concerns.
The 2006 version’s September launch prompted Kentucky officials to complain that putting a new tool out so late in the election season was confusing and hard to use. Only about 60 voters submitted confirmable ballot requests through that system, according to a May 2007 DOD report.
FVAP Deputy Director Scott Wiedemann said the agency was congressionally mandated to produce something for the 2006 election as part of legislation passed in June of that year.
Any future Internet voting initiatives are on hold until best practices guidelines are released by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, he said.
Guidelines are not expected until 2010.
Wiedemann said local jurisdictions sometimes don’t sign on to FVAP tools because of conflict in state law, but that numerous states have signed into law electronic voting initiatives proposed by the voting program.
"Everything we do is predicated on state law and the state’s ability to allow for such transmission," Wiedemann said.
A $600,000 system debuted in July that helps overseas voters request ballots and transmit voting material electronically if their state allows it.
Requirements for voter registration and absentee ballots vary by state.
The May 2007 DOD report on overseas voting laid out a timetable for the project that included an application ready in time for the primaries and a June release date. The report also cautions any new system would require several months of lead time to educate state election officials.
In the meantime, the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF), a nonprofit overseas voter advocacy group, developed a similar tool for voter information and absentee ballot requests for about $100,000 that it launched in October.
The foundation’s Web site includes applications that help voters register, request absentee ballots and find out their home state’s unique requirements. After users are prompted to fill in the required information for their state, a PDF is generated that voters print, sign and mail to their local election office.
"Just like TurboTax helps taxpayers navigate the tax code, the OVF tool does the same thing," said Michael Caudell-Fegan, of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Make Voting Work initiative, which helped fund the OVF project.
On the government’s FVAP Web site, users are required to create an account to use a similar automated tool, something OVF’s site does not require.
Director Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat said funding for the OVF tool was initially supposed to come from the government.
She lobbied Congress on behalf of OVF in 2006 before U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., submitted a $600,000 defense spending earmark for the OVF tool in the 2007 Defense Department Appropriations Bill. Dzieduszycka-Suinat said the foundation was denied the money when the project was shopped as a contract by the Pentagon, something OVF couldn’t bid on because of its nonprofit status.
In a November letter to House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations Chair John Murtha, Maloney wrote that the DOD "did not follow congressional intent in executing the funding."
"Essentially the FVAP has taken the funding, given it to a DOD contractor to produce a system that already exists which amounts to redundant development and unnecessary waste," the letter states.
Maloney said in a June statement that she tried to direct funding to OVF because the foundation "does on a short-string budget what the DOD and voting office seem incapable of doing with millions of dollars."
Wiedemann said the FVAP followed standard DOD contracting procedure for the project.
While FVAP shops its voting assistance site to states as the election nears, OVF’s private sector alternate is now used by Minnesota, Alabama and Ohio, with negotiations ongoing in other states, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.
Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman called the OVF site "fabulous," and said she wishes state law allowed more paperless voting options.
"There is no trendsetter right now with regard to military voting," Chapman said.
"It matters not to me who brings it, as long as they expedite."
Minnesota State Secretary Mark Ritchie called the OVF site "a great service" and said government alternatives weren’t around two years ago when he set out to help Minnesotans overseas.
The individual initiatives sprouting up this election year to better help overseas voters are the consequence of a lack of sufficient help from the government, said Bob Carey of the National Defense Committee, a military voter advocacy group.
"Registering people to vote and providing the opportunity to vote is a government function," Carey said. "There shouldn’t be a need for OVF."
The series ...
With big voting initiatives ineffective or delayed, small approaches are pursued