*A $22 million pilot program to develop an Internet voting system for Americans deployed overseas was scrapped after the Pentagon concluded it would be vulnerable to hackers intent on tampering with elections.Analysis: First of all, it's helpful to understand a few of the ways in which military votes can go uncounted:
*The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress formerly known as the General Accounting Office, found that the system used to collect and deliver mail in Iraq, including absentee ballots, suffers from long delays and other problems.
*The Pentagon's inspector general found that a Defense Department program to ease voting by Americans overseas, including deployed troops, continues to be given low priority by field commanders. Surprise visits to 10 foreign sites found seven programs ineffective and three only partially effective. Nearly three of every five troops surveyed said they did not know their voting assistance officer.
*A Pentagon agency charged with helping servicemembers and other Americans abroad vote is more than two months late in providing information for a report by the Election Assistance Commission on how states are doing and how they can improve. "I would like to have seen it out much earlier," says Paul DeGregorio, a member of the commission, which was created to help solve voting problems.
1. Mail forwarding. A lot of soldiers simply don't change addresses when they go on deployment; they simply file a forwarding order and have their mail forwarded by the U.S. Postal Service and the Army to their destination. When this happens, mail can be delayed by anywhere from one to two weeks. Thus, if a soldier gets a sample ballot 1-2 months before an election, and has to return it 1 month before the election in order to get a one-time absentee ballot, the mail forwarding process can frustrate that.
2. Mail delays. Whether or not the soldier changes his/her address, there will be delays in the mail pipeline. These delays range from a week (for those who work in HQ in Baghdad) to much longer for a soldier in the field at the platoon or company level. The delays exist on the receiving and sending end, depending on when/how the mail hits various gates in the pipeline. A letter or ballot that misses the First Sergeant's run to battalion might languish for 2-3 days before the next mail run, or have the same thing happen at battalion or brigade level. This adds friction to the process, and inevitably means that soldiers will miss deadlines for timely absentee voting.
3. Postage. It sounds silly, but it's not. While overseas, soldiers usually get free postage for letters back to the states. Unfortunately, this means that a postmark doesn't always get affixed to a military ballot, and thus local voting officials sometimes refuse to accept military ballots that come in right around (or after) the deadline. I think this problem has been fixed by the armed forces, who now date-stamp mail, but I'm not sure. I've gotten mail from Iraq that did not have an official time/date postmark on it, so this could still be a problem.
Cumulatively, all of these problems can add up to thousands of military ballots that go uncounted. The U.S. has not had this many soldiers deployed to a war zone during an election since Vietnam, and it does not have the infrastructure in place to support voting by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This could become a major problem unless rapid measures are taken to fix it.
The conventional wisdom used to be that the military votes Republican, and thus, you'd expect the GOP to be all over this problem. But as Ben Wallace-Wells discusses in this Washington Monthly article, I'm not so sure that's still the case. Today's military is very diverse, especially in its enlisted ranks, and minority voters tend to vote Democrat. I would say, based on my experience, that the officer corps is more conservative than society at large. But I think that the war in Iraq and the conduct of the war on terrorism generally may make a lot of military officers (not to mention enlisted personnel) question their commitment to the GOP. So, it's not clear how these military voter issues will affect the outcome of the election. I think much will depend on micro-variations, such as the ability of troops from a specific state (e.g. Ohio) to get their votes in to be counted.
Of course, we shouldn't just be concerned with electoral outcomes here. We ought to be concerned about our fighting men and women getting their votes counted — that matters more than the outcome itself. It would truly be perverse to send our military to fight overseas, ostensibly to install democracy in Iraq, but to deny them their basic democratic right to vote at home. I don't think for a moment that anyone is intentionally denying the military's right to vote here. But I do think this is disenfranchisement by dereliction — or at the very least by negligence. And that's just inexcusable. Our soldiers deserve better, and I think it's outrageous that we haven't seen more action on this front from DOJ's voting rights section or from the Pentagon.
Update - The Army takes action: I was very heartened to see the Army post this press release regarding actions it's taking to ensure military votes get counted this year. From the looks of this release, these actions have been in the works for a while. I'm glad the USA Today story spurred the Army to publicize these efforts.
USPS employees will contact 3,000 county election officials all over the country to coordinate mailing of overseas absentee ballots. Once the blank local ballots are printed, they will be sent by local post offices via overnight Express Mail to San Francisco, Miami and New York, the three military gateways.
USPS will mail successive groups of ballots to military gateways daily and will determine the number of ballots per location at the gateways. Then the ballots will be sorted by destination and placed in containers specially marked for visibility and priority.
DoD's Military Postal System will then give the ballots priority handling for delivery overseas, will ensure they receive a proper, legible postmark upon return, and will place them in easily identifiable containers. The ballots will then receive priority processing for delivery back to county election officials.