Senator seeks better delivery of fall ballots
Stars and Stripes May 24, 2008
WASHINGTON — A Republican senator wants the Pentagon to clean up the overseas voting process before this fall’s presidential election, saying he thinks they have the time and capacity to make sure every vote is counted.
"I think this is about a lack of will, not a lack of ability," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who introduced new overseas balloting legislation this week.
"The Defense Department moves hundreds of thousands of men and women and pieces of equipment all over the world. They ought to be able to figure out the logistics of getting ballots back in time."
Pentagon officials have not taken a position on the legislation, but said they have planned improvements for delivering and returning military ballots this year.
Last fall a report from the Election Assistance Commission said about 119,000 military personnel stationed outside the U.S. requested ballots in the 2006 midterm elections, but only about 57,000 — less than 48 percent — had their votes successfully counted.
That’s better than the rate among all overseas voters, according to the report. Of the more than 990,000 U.S. voters overseas who requested ballots in the election, less than one-third successfully cast a vote.
Cornyn called those figures distressing, noting that troops serving away from home should not lose "one of our nation’s most basic and cherished rights."
His legislation, which mirrors a bill introduced in the House by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., calls for express mail services, reliable tracking of the ballots to ensure they are delivered and returned in time, and new rules requiring states to drop technicalities in balloting forms to ensure more votes are counted.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost about $20 million over the next five years.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program worked closely with U.S. Postal Service officials in 2004 and 2006 to get express mail priority for overseas military ballots, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington.
This fall those ballots will be specially marked in an effort to move them even quicker.
And the office has planned more outreach efforts with its military elections programs and Department of State partners, to make sure troops know about deadlines for registration and ballot submission.
But Cornyn said those efforts haven’t been enough, primarily because of the complexity of moving ballots all over the world.
His bill would also put a single presidential designee in charge of the process, ensuring that military, elections and postal officials all work in unison to get ballots to deployed troops.
"I think the biggest problem with the process is the lack of a single person responsible for making it work," Cornyn said.
The senator said he believes Congress can pass his measure into law next month, leaving plenty of time to implement it before the election.
But neither House nor Senate leaders have taken a stance on the measure, and lawmakers have not yet scheduled a hearing on either bill.
FVAP has scheduled three different weeklong awareness campaigns later this year to help educate troops on absentee voting: Overseas Citizens Voters Week, scheduled to start June 28; Armed Forces Voters Week, starting Aug. 31; and Absentee Voting Week, starting Oct. 12.