While experts reported that the November elections went off with hardly a hitch, questions are being raised about whether all of the hundreds of thousands of military voters serving abroad were able to cast their ballots with the rest of the country.
This issue arose during the 2008 election when the U.S. Department of Justice sued Virginia, contending that the state mailed its overseas ballots too late for service members to receive and return them in time to be counted.
The likelihood of a ballot being counted in time depends on which state a soldier is from, and whether a state's process relies more on the U.S. Postal Service or electronic means, such as fax or e-mail. These differences were highlighted in a report released Jan. 6 that concluded that half the states could improve their systems to make sure overseas military can vote.
"We're failing in our responsibility to ensure access to military voters living overseas. While these voters are serving America, America is not serving them," said David Becker, who worked on the report for Make Voting Work , a project of the Pew Center of the States . Stateline.org is also a PCS project.
The Pew report found that 16 states and the District of Columbia do not give overseas military personnel enough time to vote, and another three states cut it so close that their ballots are also at risk. In Alabama, which needs the longest time among states to send and receive ballots, it takes 88 days to cast an overseas military vote. That state requires three mailings: first, from a soldier requesting a ballot, again when the state sends it, and once more to send in the ballot.
The states that can process an overseas military vote in the shortest time are Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and Rhode Island, with just eight days needed to complete the voting process, according to the report. These states are among 19 that allow completed ballots to be returned by fax or e-mail.
Six of those 19 states, however - Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Rhode Island - were still faulted in the report because their voting timeframe gave overseas voters no other option but to send in their completed ballot using fax or e-mail, a method that some experts say has the potential for privacy and security violations.
The report said up to 300,000 service members could be affected by the policies in the 25 states that it designated as needing improvement.
During 2006 elections, about two-thirds of the 1 million ballots sent to military and overseas voters were not cast or counted, reported the U.S. Election Assistance Commission , which releases information on election administration.
The report looked at states' methods for processing overseas military ballots during the 2008 election. In addition to analyzing how long it took each state to send and receive ballots, the report examined whether states sent ballots early enough, imposed requirements for ballots to be notarized by a witness, and accepted completed ballots after Election Day.
Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman (R) said that her state's slowest-in-the-nation overseas vote time wasn't a surprise, but that state law prevents her from improving the system. Alabama, New York and Wyoming are the only three states whose laws require them to use the U.S. Postal Service to carry ballots.
Chapman is pushing for secure Internet voting for overseas military, a new system that could move Alabama from the back of the pack to the front in terms of needing the shortest amount of time. She is considering copying a pilot program in Florida's Okaloosa County that allowed people abroad to vote in kiosks and has already convened a military voting task force and met with three vendors that operate Internet voting systems for other countries, including Australia.
"It bothers me to be an American and have other counties that are far more advanced in this process than we are," she said. "Democracy is certainly alive and well, and it should be as much, or more so, for the U.S. military than anybody else."
Alabama 's military has adjusted to the slow schedule, and the majority of soldiers return their ballots on time, said Col. Bryan Morgan, a staff judge advocate for the state National Guard. But he said he's hoping for a change. "It is just cumbersome to have U.S. mail crossing the ocean three times," Morgan said.
Other states with long lead times for overseas military voting are Missouri, Tennessee and Wyoming, which all need 85 days, according to the report.
Although Missouri law also requires regular mail to be used, the report "doesn't reflect the whole story of what's going on in Missouri," said Laura Egerdal, a spokeswoman for Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D). Carnahan has the power to allow ballots to be faxed or e-mailed to military members serving in combat areas or in areas she designates as inaccessible, which includes most places where Missouri troops are serving.
"We can't change the laws, but within the laws we've done everything we can to get information to our troops as early as possible and to make sure that information is clear so they know what to do and they can have a voice in the election," Egerdal said.
In the last election, about 80 percent of military ballots from Missourians abroad, or 12,070 out of more than 15,200 requested, were returned and counted, she said.
Recent changes have helped some states speed up overseas voting. Last year, the Georgia General Assembly enacted a law to allow overseas ballots to be requested by fax or e-mail. However, because voter registration forms still have to be mailed using the postal service, the Pew report counts Georgia among the states with the longest lag times (85 days).
Minnesota last year began allowing the state to mail blank ballots electronically. That resulted in a substantial increase in voting by soldiers abroad. In 2006, only 25 percent of overseas ballot requests were returned and counted, but in 2008, that figure bumped up to 69 percent, or about 11,000 out of 16,000 absentee ballots requested. About 5,500 of those ballots were sent by e-mail.
Last year, the Virginia legislature enacted a similar law, after the state experimented with it for a few years. The state got passing grades in the Pew report, but the justice department is claiming in its lawsuit that Virginia mailed absentee ballots to overseas military voters for the November election too late for them to return the ballots in time.
The State Board of Elections maintains that it did nothing wrong, but state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) still announced in December that he would push a bill this session requiring that local registrars mail absentee ballots to overseas military members within three days after a request is received.