Pressured Pentagon readies for overseas voting of military, expats

The Pentagon has kicked off its voting awareness week after Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) placed a hold on civilian Department of Defense nominations because he was displeased at how it was implementing his bill that seeks to make it easier for overseas military service members to vote.

With Election Day less than two months away, ensuring that all votes cast by the military are counted is a major concern after problems surfaced in previous elections.

Some lawmakers are concerned that ballots won’t make it back in time to the states because the overseas voting process is so complex, time consuming and at times dysfunctional.

The potential voters include 1.4 million active duty members of the military and an almost equal number of their family members on bases across the country and overseas.

About 225,000 of them are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with some in remote and inaccessible areas. 

Burns, one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, has pushed to make sure the Pentagon implemented one of his initiatives on the issue.

Burns had a hold on five civilian Pentagon nominees in August until the Defense Department committed to easing the voting process for the military this year.

And now Pentagon officials have initiated Armed Forces Voter Week to highlight their efforts to tackle the problem.

During conference negotiations for a war-emergency supplemental bill in June, lawmakers added legislation sponsored by Burns, a defense appropriator, that allotted $2.5 million for a pilot program that enables military voters to request and receive their ballots for the 2006 election through the Internet.

“In the last several years, we’ve had a special challenge of reaching the deployed warrior on the battlefield,” said Michael Dominguez, the principal deputy undersecretary for defense for personnel and readiness. 

Deployed troops may not be where their mailing addresses are, and if they are, they are likely to move before mail can reach them, he added.

“That’s a particular problem in voting where time does matter,” he said.

Through its Federal Voting Assistance Program, the Pentagon is looking at the option of the military using either e-mail or a secure server similar to online banking to connect to their local voting officials in order to request a ballot and receive ballots over the Internet, Dominguez explained.

“Where fax lines aren’t available, where the mail is going to be problematic, most people can get to e-mail or to the web at least for some part of their day and we hope to be able to address that,” he said.

Troops have been able to have web access in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world through the military’s satellite network.

“The states are in control about whether and how they will accept those kind of technologies,” Dominguez said. “We have reached out to the states and we’ve gotten help from the members of the Congress in encouraging their states to participate with us in this kind of program.”

Federal voting assistance officials are also working with the U.S. Postal Service and the Military Postal Service Agency to make sure that mail will be able to move in some of the more remote areas, said Polli Brunelli, who heads the program.

Brunelli said that her office also is working to allow for the blank ballots to be faxed.

The Pentagon is counting on its improved voting website to smooth the military voting process. Part of the improvement is the addition of a link to the integrated voting alternative site, which has an interactive map that lists all the voting options allowed by each state.

The Defense Department is not only responsible for the troops’ voting, but also for the balloting process for all expatriate voters. Currently, there are about 3.7 million Americans living overseas.

“Fighting a huge bureaucracy averse to change is always difficult,” Burns said in a statement. “And I will continue to do all I can here in the Senate to make sure we hold the feet of that bureaucracy to the fire to make sure our brave men and women in uniform are able to exercise their fundamental right as Americans.”

About 1,300 troops are deployed from Montana this year, said Derek Hunter, Burns’ spokesman. Burns became interested in the matter after the uproar over the military ballots in 2000 and after one of his own staff members, who at the time was deployed in Japan, told him he was disenfranchised, Hunter recalled.

Burns is not alone in his quest to ensure that the military gets to cast its vote. Another vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), took interest in the issue after scandal erupted in his state because members of the military said that they were not able to vote. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) also introduced legislation to ensure that the military and overseas voters are not disenfranchised.

According to Hunter, Burns has also been working with Sens. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and David Vitter (R-La.).

In a report released last year, the National Defense Committee, a pro-military organization, said that the military absentee voter disenfranchisement rate in the 2004 election was 24 percent.