February 22, 2008 - Military Update: Interest in ‘08 election high among military voters
Paper: Hanford Sentinel, The (CA)
Title: Military Update: Interest in ‘08 election high among military voters
Date: February 22, 2008
Author: Tom Philpott
Military people seem to be at least as excited as other Americans about voting this election year, according to few yardsticks.
Military voting assistance officers are ordering a lot of material to meet information demands in their units, said Polli Brunelli, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which informs active duty members, their families and Americans overseas how to vote using absentee ballots.
More telling, perhaps, is a spike in traffic on FVAP's 12-year-old website where a potential pool of more than six million absentee voters can get election information, voter registration forms and ballot applications.
In 2004, the last presidential election year, the website was accessed 263,900 times in January. This January visits jumped to 1,284,000, nearly a million more than four years ago.
"There (has been) a tremendous amount of interest in the primaries," said Brunelli, sparked by "new candidates" and intense news coverage.
Also, because many more states moved primaries into January and February, FVAP urged military and overseas voters to register and to request absentee ballots months earlier than in 2004. That outreach effort included an "e-mail blast" to 1.3 million active duty personnel encouraging early review of state requirements and deadlines for primary voting , Brunelli said.
Congress established the FVAP under the Defense Department in 1986 to improve voting education and assistance to military and U.S. citizens worldwide. Its 13-person staff runs workshops to train thousands of military voting assistance officers as well as embassy and consulate staffs. They supply absentee voting materials to 6000 military recruiting stations.
Brunelli joined the FVAP in 1995, becoming director in 1999. The wife of a retired Navy officer, she voted absentee herself many times over husband's 30-year career without a hitch. But the Brunellis never lived outside the states, avoiding a circumstance that still creates challenges.
Absentee voting actually is easy, Brunelli said, "a matter of filling in the form, sending it to their local election office, receiving the ballot, voting , and returning it." Military members who haven't done it before should talk to their voting assistance officer or visit the FVAP Web sites, www.fvap.gov, for information and forms needed to register and apply for a ballot.
FVAP's voting guide has local and state election rules and deadlines. The two most important forms are the Federal Post Card Application and the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. The "post card," now one-page application, is used both to register to vote or to request an absentee ballot. If a ballot fails to arrive in timely manner, the write-in ballot can be used but only to vote for federal offices: president, senator and House representative.
Samuel F. Wright, a retired Navy Reserve captain and lawyer, has been an advocate for military absentee voters for more than 25 years. He said the leg of process that most often disenfranchises a service member's from voting is getting an unmarked ballot back from local election officials.
The challenge, exaggerated in wartime, is "like trying to hit a moving target," he said. The mailing address a service member provided when registering to vote or applying for a ballot often has changed by the time the ballot is agreed to by local officials, printed and mailed as election day nears.
"We're still conducting absentee voting essentially as we did in World War II and the Korean War -- by snail mail," Wright grumbled.
Brunelli agreed that "ballot transit" is the weakest link in absentee voting for service members overseas. In past elections , too many haven't gotten ballots returned in time to mark, mail them and be counted.
"Sometimes the mail just can't get through," she said. "Sometimes it's typhoons or ship at sea. We have people on the move ... so the ballot will go where it's supposed to go but the individual will be somewhere else."
The FVAP has pressed states for years to provide alternatives to mailed ballots. During the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, some states began faxing ballots to absentee military voters who requested them.
Some states now allow faxed ballots back to polling stations, along with a signed form that waives the member's right, in this instance, to cast a secret ballot.
The push now is to allow e-mailing of ballots overseas so they can reach voters anywhere that have access to a computer. So far, 13 states are doing it. Brunelli expects that number to climb with every election cycle.
States modernize their voting processes at different speeds based on local needs and resources, Brunelli said. But altogether they "have passed a tremendous amount of legislation to benefit citizens," often exceeding requirements of the Uniformed and Overseas Assistance Absentee Voting Act.
She noted, for example, that 24 states now have Web sites where voters can verify if, and where, they are registered to vote.
In the 2000 presidential election , Brunelli said, 12 percent of military absentee ballots weren't counted. Ballots either arrived late or were filled out improperly or fell victim to other errors or glitches. By 2004, the percentage of failed absentee votes for the military dropped to six percent.
That is significant progress, Brunelli contends.
Wright challenges the FVAP statistics. His own polling of local election officials found that at least 24 percent of military voters in 2004 likely were disenfranchised, primarily because states were slow to print and mail election ballots, sometimes because of court challenges over candidates on the ballot.
"These people are defending our country," Wright said. "They ought to have the right to vote and to have their ballots counted. Just casting a vote that never gets counted is kind of a pointless act" and unacceptable.
To comment, e-mail email@example.com; write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111; or visit www.militaryupdate.com.
(Feb. 22, 2008)
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