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National Issues

Data on Overseas Absentee Ballots Raise Questions PDF  | Print |  Email
By Brian Knowlton, International Herald Tribune   
October 02, 2007

This article was published in the International Herald Tribune and is reposted here with permission of the author.


A new federal survey has found that a scant one-third of the nearly one million absentee ballots requested for the U.S. general election last year by overseas American civilians or active-duty service members were actually cast or counted, a result that one overseas voting advocate said felt like "a dagger in the heart."


The assessment raised questions about enormous disparities in how ballots are being issued and processed.


The report, issued this week by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, cites serious deficiencies in the collection and reporting of election data by both state and local offices, despite federal requirements imposed in 2002 by the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. One result is that "it is impossible to calculate accurate turnout figures."

A few states, like Alabama and Tennessee, provided almost no data. Ed Packard, Alabama supervisor of voter registration, said the responsible official under a previous state administration "basically didn't collect that information, or did limited amounts of it."


He said the state was working to rectify the problem.


The commission recommends that states do far more to track ballot requests and the reasons ballots are rejected; make greater efforts to educate service members and Americans overseas of their voting rights; and remove obstacles to the voting process.


It calls on states to consider delivering or receiving ballots by fax, telephone or Internet, while protecting against abuses. And it urges the military to ensure that ballots reach service members who have moved.


In all, 992,034 absentee ballots were requested in 2006 by service members or overseas civilians, but "this number is still dwarfed by the absolute number of eligible voters," the report states.


The relevant federal law - the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Act - covers about six million Americans, so "less than 16.5 percent of potentially eligible Uocava voters sought to participate in the 2006 election."


Seeing these numbers, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, whose Overseas Vote Foundation promotes voter participation by expatriates, "I kind of felt like I'd been punched in the gut.


"The single biggest motivator for a vote is that people think their vote will count. That's why this report is such a blow."


A major problem with the data, and with the system more generally, stems from the HAVA law. It requires that when a voter registers with an overseas address, jurisdictions automatically mail absentee ballots to that address for the next two federal elections.


But overseas Americans, particularly in the military, move frequently.


Some 70 percent of ballots are returned as undeliverable - "just a phenomenal amount," said Kim Brace, president of the private Election Data Services, which compiled the report for the Election Assistance Commission.


Dzieduszycka-Suinat said that the automatic sending of ballots - even when earlier ones have been returned - amounted to an enormous waste. "One thing that's very obvious is that there's a tremendous policy problem, and a lot of money, time and energy being spent sending undeliverable ballots," she said.


Meanwhile, the Pentagon's Web-based system to help absentee voters has been troubled, Brace said. Many service members have turned to the Overseas Vote Foundation Web site.


The fragmented nature of the U.S. electoral system is also a problem.


"The American election administration process is very decentralized, as we learned after Florida," Brace said. Laws vary from state to state, and are applied unequally in local election offices. "They're caught by not having funds to gather information, they're caught by not having the staff necessary," he said.


Just as state laws differ, so does handling of absentee ballots. Indiana and North Carolina reported that more than 40 percent of requested ballots were subsequently rejected; other states reported rejection rates of less than 3 percent.


Grounds for rejection included voters' failure to sign ballots; the inability to verify voter signatures; and failure of voters to date their ballots.


Ten percent of absentee ballots were rejected because they arrived late, indicating that many voters may be unaware that they can download a federal write-in ballot if they do not receive a mailed ballot in time.


Dzieduszycka-Suinat said she worried that the poor data made it hard to identify problem areas. "We've spent years reassuring voters that legally their votes must be counted, and I was quite surprised to find that so many are not," she said. "The worst is that they seem to be falling into a no man's land."

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