Opening Remarks from Pew’s Event on Overseas Voting

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Speaker: Michael Caudell-Feagan

Project Director, Make Voting Work

Venue: The Pew Charitable Trusts


10/25/2007 - Welcome everyone. I am Michael Caudell-Feagan, project director of Pew’s Make Voting Work initiative. Thank you for joining us this morning to discuss potential solutions to challenges facing the estimated six million military and overseas citizens covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act—what we call UOCAVA voters—as they attempt to successfully register, acquire absentee ballots and return them in time to be counted—rights many of us in this room take for granted. 

I am joined by a panel of election officials, advocates and innovators working to improve the voting process for UOCAVA voters. They include Robert Carey of the National Defense Committee, Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat from the Overseas Vote Foundation, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner of Ohio and Secretary of State Beth Chapman of Alabama.  

At perhaps no time in history is it more important to ensure that uniformed and overseas citizens can exercise their right to vote. 

Over 160,000 U.S. service members are in Iraq, and this war is now one of the longest foreign engagements in U.S. history. Over 20,000 service members are in Afghanistan. Many of them have been deployed, redeployed, and in some cases, deployed again. During this time, they have missed out on countless moments of joy—like the birth of a new child—and moments of sadness, like the death of a family member.  

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, two federal elections have taken place—in 2004 and 2006. In the grand scheme of life’s other events, an election is a small consideration. But like all Americans, UOCAVA voters should expect the act of casting a vote to be simple and efficient. And they should walk away with a renewed sense of confidence that their vote is being counted and that democracy works.

Shamefully, today military and overseas voters do not share an equal opportunity to vote.   

Their disenfranchisement is rampant, and it is unacceptable. But, as we’ll demonstrate today, it is preventable.  Many problems will require significant work to resolve, but in the coming months we can make a difference.

According to a recent survey by the federal Election Assistance Commission, nearly one million ballots were mailed to UOCAVA voters, but only one-third to one-half were counted. How would you feel if one-half to two-thirds of the votes in your state or city were lost? That is what UOCAVA voters face.

Alarmingly, we cannot even have confidence in this figure since most states surveyed do not adequately track how many ballots were requested, delivered and ultimately returned and counted. 

We vote because we want to impact the outcome of elections—especially in a period when races are so close at the national, state and local level. 

Although the data is not conclusive, disenfranchisement appears to affect the three major categories of UOCAVA voters—domestic military personnel, overseas military personnel, and overseas civilians—relatively equally, with around half of all requested ballots from each of these groups cast or counted.

This consistent level of disenfranchisement across groups of UOCAVA voters indicates that the problem is likely not one of design, but one of systemic failure to commit the resources and ingenuity needed to solve flaws in our election system. 

I am proud to kick off today’s discussion with the release of a new brief produced by electionline.org, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States, which you will find in your packets. As electionline.org highlights, UOCAVA voters face a labyrinth of complex state rules and regulations when it comes to requesting, receiving and returning ballots.

Some rules are arbitrary, some ambiguous, others are simply burdensome and complex, and disqualify ballots for minor infractions. There is much to be gained from the experimentation being undertaken in our states and localities.

Let me just share a few examples from the electionline report on what people face. They raise serious questions about why a service member in a Humvee in Bagdad will face one set of rules while someone sitting next to him faces an entirely different set of barriers.

  • In Rhode Island, UOCAVA voters can fax in a ballot request, but the request must be received no later than 4:00 p.m., 21 days before the election. 
  • In Utah, a faxed ballot request can be made only when the voter is in a hostile fire zone or an area where mail service is unreliable.
  • In Washington, D.C., after filling out an application to receive a ballot by fax and having it approved, a voter is assigned a fax authorization number and required to sign an affidavit waiving the right to a secret ballot. 
  • In Wisconsin, if an email request is made, a duplicate paper request must be postmarked or mailed the same day.
The level of detail and discrepancies between states and localities goes on and on.

So, what if you get through all of these steps – you are able to navigate the rules to successfully register and get your absentee ballot? 

Well, returning it in time is just as challenging.

UOCAVA voters are often willing to sacrifice their Constitutional right to a secret ballot and use fax and in some cases email. However, only 23 states allow ballots to be returned by fax and seven by email in limited circumstances and often coupled with other requirements to mail documentation. 

Sound complicated? Well, the situation promises to get more complicated this election primary season. 

Thanks to a heightened interest in politics and increased overseas voter mobilization efforts, more citizens living abroad are expected to cast a ballot in 2008. However, with primaries being scheduled earlier in the year, overseas voters will have less time to register and cast their vote, and when they do so, their ballots will be mixed with holiday mail. This adds more variables to an already overly complicated process that could prevent votes from not being cast. 

The good news, and there is good news, is that there are a wide variety of organizations working to reduce the burden on UOCAVA voters. 

Every election, Democrats Abroad, Republicans Abroad, the Military Voting Rights Project and tens of other organizations provide vital assistance. And the Department of Defense has experimented with Internet voting and other efforts to ease the burden on military voters.

Ultimately, however, lasting solutions have to be driven by election officials and policy makers in the states. And recently we’ve seen encouraging examples of state experimentation and innovation.

In Okaloosa County, Florida, election officials are piloting kiosks that will assist overseas voters in England, Germany and Japan.

In Texas, home to Fort Hood, the nation’s largest domestic military base, and home-state for tens of thousands of deployed military voters, a pilot project is being undertaken to allow secure voting by email. The hope is to expand this program after the 2008 election.

Many states are improving their Web-based services, and I am proud to say that the non-partisan Overseas Vote Foundation—OVF—is at the cutting edge of providing online tools to help election officials improve the voting experience for UOCAVA voters.  OVF has done this with an exceptionally modest base of support, a dedicated group of volunteers, and a dynamic group of Web designers and engineers. They have done so working overtime to get this system tested and operational in time for looming primary deadlines.

OVF’s new Web site and easy-to-use voter services applications, which we will preview here today, offer a user-friendly online system to automate the complex process facing military and civilian overseas voters attempting to register to vote and request absentee ballots.

In addition, OVF now provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date listing of local U.S. election office contact information available today through its Election Official Directory. All Americans should expect to be able to reach their local election officials to ask questions and resolve problems when requesting and casting a ballot, and this tool helps them do that.

OVF is the first organization to receive a major grant from Make Voting Work, an ambitious multi-million dollar initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States, which is designed to improve the accuracy, convenience, efficiency and security of U.S. elections. 

Our goal is to work with election officials and anyone else who cares deeply about the health of our democracy to make measurable progress in the conduct of elections through research partnerships, bringing to bear the expertise of major private-sector partners and other strategies.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Make Voting Work is our focus on promoting partnerships between election officials and researchers. We firmly believe that the women and men running elections should drive the design of solutions, but that they need the expertise of professional researchers to assess the impact of these new approaches and the ability to tap the resources and innovative spirit of the private sector. And these solutions need to be road-tested during election cycles. 

With the generous support of the JEHT Foundation, we will soon announce more than $3 million in election official-researcher project partnerships that will test new approaches to voter registration, election performance audits, poll worker training and other areas in 2008 elections. 

The primary goals of this research are to ground decisions made in the field in empirical data about what works and what doesn’t, test innovative solutions and provide a much clearer picture of how well U.S. elections are functioning and how we can improve them.

As the poor survey data on UOCAVA voters referenced earlier and other federal surveys show, data with respect to elections is generally poor or non-existent. Many states cannot even report an accurate count of registered voters, how many poll workers they use on Election Day and other basic information.  

If we expect to dramatically improve election performance, we need high-quality data to firmly identify problem areas and solutions that work. 

We firmly believe that with the right investments and partnerships, U.S. elections are poised for great improvements.  I think we’ve seen a demonstration of that today.

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