Voting over there

June 25, 2007

Last fall, Maryland's local election boards mailed out 3,788 absentee ballots to uniformed military personnel and another 6,018 to civilian state residents living overseas. Of these, just 3,049 were returned and wound up being counted in the general election. That is an abysmal performance - less than half the traditional return rate of absentee ballots. But it's also fairly typical for U.S. military and expatriate voters.

Next year's elections are likely to produce similar results, nationwide.

That's a disgrace, particularly when one considers that quite a few of these disenfranchised voters are purportedly fighting for the principles of democracy in Iraq. And the U.S. Department of Defense has spent millions of dollars to address the problem with little to show for it.

The problem is that it's just too difficult for those living abroad to cast a ballot. Erstwhile voters must register in the state where they last resided (in Maryland, it must be done with a local election board in Baltimore or one of the 23 counties).

And then - if the voter has requested the appropriate absentee ballot and it's been delivered to the right location - he or she must complete the ballot and mail it back under a strict timetable. For Maryland voters, that means they must be postmarked by Election Day and received by the second Friday after the election.

The Pentagon was supposed to remedy the situation with Internet-based absentee voting. But three years after Congress required an online voting demonstration project, the Defense Department still hasn't come up with a secure, workable arrangement.

A recent Government Accountability Office report criticized the Pentagon for not even having a timetable for meeting this objective. Admittedly, this is no easy task; states have had their own problems developing secure and reliable electronic voting machines. But if Amazon can take a credit card charge halfway around the world without incident, a soldier ought to be able to cast a ballot on a laptop. It's not rocket science.

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