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RAF MILDENHALL, England — Voting in next year’s congressional elections is expected to get a bit easier for troops stationed in Europe, Asia or remote war zone outposts with new voting regulations included in the fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.

Under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act — which was folded into the defense funding bill — voters will be given the option to receive ballots via e-mail or fax from election officials in the 50 states and six U.S. territories. Due to security issues, the completed ballots will still have to be returned using standard mail.

Once signed by President Barack Obama, the new legislation would take effect in time for the 2010 mid-term elections.

The legislation requires that states and territories provide ballot materials at least 45 days before the election. It also expands the use of the federal write-in absentee ballot, a last-ditch option for voters who don’t get their ballot in time.

Overseas voter advocates have called for ballots to be sent electronically to voters in the past, but this will be the first time that states and territories must provide the option. States will be able to receive an exemption if they show they have a viable alternative system in place — some states already offer electronic options for requesting and receiving blank ballots.

Voter advocates say the empowerment act will modernize the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, passed in 1986 to regulate overseas voting.

“It’s the most comprehensive [overseas voting] reform that we’ve ever seen,” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonprofit voter advocacy group. “It really clears the way for real modernization and improvement in how the [act] is implemented.”

The Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, which oversees voting under the 1986 act, is working to implement the new regulation.

“We’re ready to work with the states and voters to make sure this is implemented as quickly as possible,” program director Bob Carey said Friday.

With troops often deployed to remote bases with sporadic mail service, advocates say an electronic option is necessary to ensure voting rights for servicemembers.

“We owe it to our men and women in uniform to protect their right to vote,” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement this summer after the act’s introduction. “And for military and overseas voters, that right is only as good as their ability to cast a ballot and have it counted.”

Recent elections have shown a need to better serve overseas and military voters. Of the roughly 119,000 ballots requested by military voters in the 2006 election, about 57,000 were counted, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

FVAP is not expected to release its review of the 2008 election for a few more months, but according to an OVF survey of 24,000 overseas voters, 22 percent did not receive the ballot they expected during the 2008 election.

The importance of overseas ballots first came to light in the 2000 presidential election with the disputed Florida results, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. Since then, “a lot of data” has been acquired and change is finally happening, she said.

“Prior to 2000, all of this was going on but people weren’t looking at it,” she said. “This legislation is the first attempt to really seal up those fissures.”


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