Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Arizona Has the Right Idea

If you're a military member who claims residence in Arizona, consider yourself lucky, at least in terms of your voting rights.

Starting Thursday, any registered Arizona voter who lives overseas can vote on-line, thanks to a unique, web-based system. As the AP reports:

The Secretary of State's Military and Overseas Voting system will allow registered voters to apply for early ballots online and then submit their ballots electronically using a document scanner. Previously, Arizona elections officials allowed them to vote by faxing their ballots.

[snip]

They still can vote by fax, and now they have the option of voting on the Internet," Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer said Monday.

The system is expected to aid thousands of overseas voters for the general election. During the previous presidential election in 2004, military and overseas voters cast 7,594 ballots.

Brewer spokesman Kevin Tyne said elections officials decided to include a Web-based voting system after learning that fewer and fewer military installations were equipped with fax machines.

The Secretary of State's office developed the system itself and gained approval from the U.S. Department of Justice last week. Officials included a 128-bit encryption technology with the online ballots, giving each vote the kind of security that's used in online banking and credit card transactions.

We're a but puzzled by the claim that "fewer military installations have fax machines." We conducted our own, informal survey and found more than a dozen on a single floor of one headquarters building. But we applaud the efforts of Ms. Brewer and her staff.

Fact is, Americans living outside their home state are the most disenfranchised segment of the voting population. Recent data from the Election Assistance Commission suggests that two-thirds of the ballots requested by those voters in the last presidential election went uncounted. The reason? Most were returned as "undeliverable," or received too late to be counted. Many of those ballots were submitted by military personnel and their dependents.

So why doesn't DoD implement a single, on-line system for all military members and their families? At one time, the Pentagon was working on a web-based solution for armed forces, but abandoned it because of "security concerns."

Then, there's the matter of Congressional resistance. Since most military personnel and dependents voting Republican, the Democrats who control the House and Senate have little incentive to deliver more GOP ballots in a tight election. By some estimates, an improved absentee voting system might add another 500-600,000 ballots to the national total, with 60% of them in the Republican column.

Then, it should come as not surprise that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland reneged a deal earlier this year, promising to co-sponsor a resolution with Missouri Congressman Roy Blunt. His proposal? Simply encourage the Defense Department to "do more" to ensure that military personnel stationed overseas can vote in the November.

House Democrats also refused to act on a bill introduced by another Republican, California Representative Kevin McCarthy. All he asked was that the Pentagon use air transport for absentee ballots, cutting delivery times from three to four weeks, to as little as three days.

Without action from DoD and Congress, the states have become the best hope for making military votes count. But Arizona is, so far, the only state that allows on-line voting for all residents living overseas. An AP survey, conducted in April, found that only 13 American communities send absentee ballots via e-mail, and just seven localities allow them to return ballots over the internet. That means most military personnel stationed abroad must still request their ballots--and return them--by mail, ensuring that most won't be counted next month.

That's why the Arizona system should be adopted nationwide. As you might have guessed, Ms. Brewer is a Republican. It would be refreshing if Democratic officials showed the same level of interest (and effort) in making military votes count.

***

ADDENDUM: As we noted in an earlier post, the Bush White House is not immune from criticism on the topic of military voting. While Mr. Bush received overwhelming support from military voters in 2000 and 2004, his administration has demonstrated no leadership on the issue. With big-money DoD programs (and the financial bailout) hanging in the balance, the White House apparently doesn't want to ruffle Democrat feathers by pushing for a better military voting system.

1 comment:

Michele said...

Perhaps headquarters commands have access to fax machines, but those in the field, living in forward operating bases, or afloat don't have the luxuries of the HQ commands. For instance, I've never served on a ship with more than one fax machine (300-400 Sailors) and that only works when in some ports (far fewer than half overseas). A lot of our Sailors are spending months at sea with maybe 3 days every month or two in port. Fax machines are simply a technology of the past. This is a great improvement from the state of Arizona. I wish my state would follow suit.