U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan can speak to their families by Web camera and fight insurgents using sophisticated electronic warfare. Yet when it comes to voting, most troops are stuck in the past.
Communities in 13 states will send overseas troops presidential election ballots by e-mail this year, and districts in at least seven states will also let them return completed ballots over the Internet, according to data compiled by The Associated Press and the Overseas Vote Foundation.
That still leaves tens of thousands of service members in far-flung military bases struggling to meet voting deadlines and relying largely on regular mail to get ballots and cast votes — often at the last minute because of delays in ballot preparations in some states.
Adding an electronic boost to the process would ease those problems, but it raises security and privacy concerns.
Pentagon officials have been urging more states to move into the electronic age before November, a move that could help reverse recent trends in which thousands of military members asked for ballots but either didn't vote or had their ballots rejected for flaws.
The push comes more than seven years after problems with overseas military voting set off an uproar in President Bush's narrow 2000 victory. In Florida, where Bush squeaked out a 537-vote victory that gave him the presidency, questions were raised about several thousand overseas military votes that came in after deadlines and were counted in some districts but not counted in others.
This year, when war is a key campaign issue, the election results in any state — particularly one with heavy military voting — could turn on the votes of thousands of troops on the front lines.
"The personnel that fight our wars, the people who are most affected by the decisions on the use of the military, are being systematically denied the right to vote," said Bob Carey, a board member of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a voting rights group. "I find that pretty tough to swallow. If a president decides to deploy military troops somewhere, it's these troops that are going to go."
Slow mail can mean missed votes
Carey, a Navy reservist who has served in Iraq, noted that ballots are often not prepared and ready to be mailed until 30 to 45 days before an election. And since it can take more than two weeks for troops to get ballots by regular mail, they sometimes get them too late to meet voting deadlines.
Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said the use of e-mail is a controversial subject among his members. Yet, he said his state has had no problems using e-mail to both deliver and receive ballots from overseas voters.
"The fact of the matter is, we're voting in the same way we were voting in the 1850s," Rokita said of many other states. While a number of states are looking at the e-mail process to speed up delivery of ballots to military voters, he said the issue "is tied up in the national debate on whether we need a paper trail. Some are so scared of technology, they want to be tied to a piece of paper."
In most states that allow e-mail balloting, the voter must also follow up by mailing in the ballot. And states that permit e-mail balloting warn that it is not a secure way to transmit personal information.
States that will send a blank ballot by e-mail are: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. However, in some states, such as Illinois, only certain voting districts participate in the e-mail balloting.
States where voters can return completed ballots by e-mail are: Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina and Washington.
In some communities only members of the military may use e-mail balloting. In others all registered voters may do so. And officials noted that options may change as the year goes on, so voters should check with local districts and Web sites for updates. As an example, Missouri allowed some e-mail voting in the past, and may again.
Polli Brunelli, director of the Federal Voter Assistance Program, said that while voting by mail can work well, "it doesn't always get through." Ballot delivery, she said, is slowed by weather conditions or delays in printing or getting final approvals at the local level.
"The nice thing about the e-balloting process is that it's portable," she said, noting that troops often move around and at times have more reliable access to e-mail than regular mail. "I think we're building confidence in that process. It's a slow thing, but I think we're moving right along."
Of the roughly 1.3 million active duty military eligible to vote, about 500,000 are deployed overseas or permanently assigned there.
Men and women in uniform make up an increasingly active voting block. Brunelli said that 73 percent of all military members voted in 2004, compared with 57 percent in 2000.
A less-scientific report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission suggested there were significant problems for military members and others who tried to vote from overseas.
According to the commission's survey, nearly 1 million overseas voters — including service members, federal employees and other citizens — requested absentee ballots for the 2006 local, state and congressional elections. Of those, the survey said, more than two-thirds were never counted, largely because the ballots were returned to the local election officials as undeliverable.
The survey released late last year indicated that more than half of the ballots from the military overseas voters were not counted. The commission noted, however, that response rates to the survey varied across the country, as did the way localities collected and reported their voting statistics.
Faxing an option, sometimes
While e-mail continues to be a hotly debated topic among state voting officials, faxing is now broadly accepted as a way of getting ballots to overseas voters. And in as many as two dozen states, voters who sign a form waiving their right to privacy can send the ballots back by fax.
Those options, however, are not always workable for U.S. troops serving in widely scattered forward operating bases in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Michael Dominguez, the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for personnel, told Congress last week that since many deployed soldiers have e-mail but no fax capabilities, allowing the use of e-mail "can be crucial" if they are to vote.
For military voters, Brunelli said the U.S. Postal Service will once again provide free express mail service this year for those mailing ballots home. In addition, FedEx Express, the air-cargo division of FedEx Corp., has agreed to deliver ballots at a low cost or free, but details are still being worked out.
Also, defense officials said mailed absentee ballots will be given special markings and handling, particularly by the Military Postal Service Agency.
The Federal Voter Assistance Program also provides on its Web site a voter registration form that states will accept, as well as a write-in absentee ballot that many states also will accept.
The problem with the write-in ballot, however, is that many votes may be rejected by local election officials if candidates' names are spelled wrong or if they are written differently from the way they appear on the ballot.
Four years ago, the Defense Department canceled a pilot program for Internet voting, after concerns were raised about the security of Internet transmissions. Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ultimately decided that such concerns might undermine voter confidence.
Supporters have said such a program has potential because military members work in highly secure e-mail systems.
Indiana Secretary of State Rokita said his colleagues in other states are most concerned about voters transmitting confidential information over unsecured Internet systems. Voter registration forms are filled with personal details, including birth dates, addresses, and even Social Security numbers.
In addition, there is the potential for fraud, if there is no paper back-up to the electronic mail.
"What people want ultimately is a safe, electronic system for voting, and nothing has been developed yet that passes the test," he said. "We haven't gotten the Holy Grail for Internet voting yet."