Bill would let Americans abroad actually exercise their right to vote

The 2008 presidential election in the U.S. attracted interest all over the world —and unprecedented turnout at home. Impassioned voters waited in line for hours in heat, rain or cold. Among those entitled to vote, however, approximately 4 million faced hurdles that often lead to disenfranchisement. The problem? These voters are U.S. citizens who happen to be living and/or serving our country overseas.

The Overseas Citizens Voting Act of 1975 guaranteed the right to vote for U.S. military personnel and other citizens living abroad; but last year more than half of overseas Americans surveyed who tried to vote were unable to do so because their ballots were late or never even arrived. This includes a quarter of our men and women in the armed forces stationed overseas, who applied for but did not receive a ballot for November’s election.

That’s why we introduced H.R. 1739, the “Overseas Voting Practical Amendments Act of 2009”— a comprehensive solution to the obstacles facing overseas American voters — which will be considered by the House Administration Committee in the weeks ahead.

Right now, far too many overseas Americans are disenfranchised by a tangle of red tape. The problems include ballot delivery issues, inconsistent deadlines, poorly resourced voter assistance programs, and archaic and cumbersome state voting laws. Our bill proposes simple, inexpensive fixes to these problems to help ensure the votes of every overseas American — military and civilian alike — count.

One of the main obstacles is lengthy delivery and return periods. If you are a member of the armed forces in a forward position in Afghanistan, receiving and returning your ballot in time can be a challenge. Peace Corps and relief workers in Third World nations have similar issues, and postal speed even for civilians living in some developed nations may not meet the ballot return deadline.

We propose using the global reach of the Internet to solve blank ballot delivery issues at almost no cost to the taxpayer. For years, Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) has successfully distributed blank emergency federal write-in ballots online, helping thousands of overseas voters whose ballots arrive late or not at all. Likewise, the state of Minnesota adopted online blank ballot distribution and realized a 282 percent increase in the volume of overseas ballots processed and a 50 percent increase in the acceptance rate of absentee ballots. (Our bill specifically does not authorize the use of the Internet to return voted ballots.)

American military and overseas voters face a maze of state rules and regulations that complicate the absentee voting process. Some states require absentee ballots be notarized, a near-impossible task for Americans living abroad; states could even refuse to count absentee ballots because of the color or weight of the paper they are printed on! Our bill prohibits states from refusing to accept ballots generated with online assistance, not printed on a specific type of paper, or that don’t otherwise meet similar extraneous requirements.

Congress should act now to increase overseas and military voter participation in the 2010 elections. By passing our Overseas Voting Practical Amendments Act this year, we can ensure that the voice of millions of American citizens who live, work or serve abroad are represented at the ballot box. Then, with luck, the voter turnout levels we saw in 2008 can become the norm for Americans worldwide, not just nationwide.