For the first time, members of the U.S. armed forces stationed in Iraq or other international hot spots can use e-mail to vote in the Nov. 2 election if their legal residence is Missouri, North Dakota or Utah.
Those three states are pioneers in trying to make it easier for U.S. troops based overseas to cast absentee ballots. But the effort is not without its critics, who say the program raises privacy concerns and fears about possible vote tampering.
E-voting is designed to speed up the delivery of servicemen's absentee ballots, which up to now have been mailed back or, in certain states, faxed in. A paper ballot is to be scanned and e-mailed to the Defense Department, which then will fax it to local election offices. Deployed soldiers have easier access to computer equipment than fax machines these days, officials say.
Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican who is running for governor this election, decided to offer the e-mail option after military voters reported problems with mail-in ballots in the 2000 presidential race and as recently as the state's Aug. 3 primary.
"Secretary Blunt just feels it's very important that military men and women get the right to vote because they are making such tremendous sacrifices," said Terry Durdaller, Blunt's spokeswoman.
Problems with military absentee votes gained national attention in Florida in 2000 when hundreds of ballots - many lacking the proper postmarks or signatures - were thrown out.
Twenty-nine states require overseas ballots to be mailed back, while others also allow them to be faxed in. Most states require ballots to be received by Election Day to be counted, but some, such as Florida and Ohio, grant a grace period as long as the absentee ballots are signed by Election Day.
The Pentagon had been planning to offer the option of sending ballots via e-mail to a wider sample of military voters in November. But, citing security concerns, it abandoned in January its $22 million pilot program called SERVE, which would have offered e-mail balloting to military voters in seven states - Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Washington. Security concerns also pre-empted a pilot program that would have let about 250 overseas military members vote on the Internet in the 2000 election.
Now, groups that protested the failed Pentagon program are raising the same concerns about state-level e-voting initiatives.
"There are good reasons why the secret ballot is the foundation of our democracy," said Barbara Simons, a member of the National Committee for Voting Integrity, a voting security watchdog group. "To blithely give it up and to blithely let our fighting soldiers give it up is just outrageous, to say nothing of the many opportunities for fraud."
In Missouri, the perception of potential for fraud is compounded because Blunt will oversee an election in which he is also a candidate, Simons said. If Missouri's voters are closely divided in the presidential race, as some projections show, the state's voting methods could be subject to even more scrutiny, she said.
Statistics indicating that military members tend to vote Republican also could fuel skepticism, Simons said.
But Blunt's spokeswoman refuted the concerns, pointing out that other Missouri secretaries of state have retained the office while seeking another.
All three states that will accept e-mailed military ballots are holding gubernatorial elections this year.
The Democratic and Republican parties and the Pentagon have been pushing to register civilian and military voters abroad before November. With the U.S. war on terrorism, there are 500,000 military members stationed overseas this year, significantly more than in 2000, increasing the potential number of absentee votes.
As of mid-July, Defense Department officials reported that 340,000 absentee ballots for the November election already had been sent to military members overseas - about 90,000 more than in all of 2000.
"We need a system where we're not conducting voting like we did in World War II or the Korean War - by shipping little pieces of paper across the world," said Sam Wright, director of the Military Voting Rights Project, a group that favors alternative balloting mechanisms such as fax and e-mail.
The Pentagon and the U.S. Postal Service, meanwhile, are focusing on expediting mail-in ballots and on educating military members about states' voting rules, said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
"They (absentee ballots) will be sent out on that first truck, that first boat, that first plane," Krenke said.
States also are working to educate residents who need to vote absentee. Indiana, for example, has gained national attention for its 38-page military and overseas voters' guide, which outlines registration and balloting procedures. Indiana accepts completed ballots via fax but not e-mail.
The Defense Department recommends that military members vote absentee no later than Oct. 15.