Despite the problems encountered by servicemen who tried to vote by absentee ballot in the 2000 presidential election, a recent report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) indicates things could be even worse this November.
Slow and unreliable mail service to the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq may make it impossible for many of them to vote. In addition, the Department of Defense has canceled an experimental electronic voting program that was being developed for troops stationed overseas.
Most states and territories begin mailing out absentee ballots 30-45 days before an election. But it often takes more than 30 days for a letter from the U.S. to reach troops in Iraq, and then it takes the same amount of time for a return letter to the states.
In a report released last week, GAO said it interviewed 127 servicemen in Afghanistan. “Nearly half said that, after arriving in theater, they waited more than four weeks to get their mail, and many commented that some mail took as long as four months to work its way through the system,” said the report.
Many pieces of mail were simply lost. Eighty per cent of the troops interviewed by GAO said they knew of mail that never reached them, and a GAO test backed up their claims. “We found that a significant number of test letters were never returned,” reported GAO.
Sen. Kit Bond (R.-Mo.) is prodding the Defense Department to fix the problem. On March 31, he wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complaining that efforts to improve military mail service have bogged down. “Military absentee ballots that are lost, incorrectly completed or delivered past local election deadlines disenfranchise the military voter,” he told Rumsfeld.
Bond’s communications director, Rob Ostrander, said Bond is not satisfied with the Pentagon’s response. “There doesn’t seem to be the sense of urgency within the bureaucracy that is needed to address these problems quickly,” he said.
A Pentagon spokesman insisted that mail delivery would be made adequate for absentee voting by the fall.
But at least one retired senior officer has no confidence in this prediction. “Given the sluggish military mail system that the GAO has described in its report, and with the increased military deployments to ever-more remote locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s pretty obvious to me that even fewer servicemen will be able to vote this year than were able to in 2000,” said retired Rear Adm. Jim Carey. A former chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, Carey is now chairman of the National Defense Committee, a pro-military advocacy group.
Carey decried the Defense Department’s cancellation of an Internet absentee voting experiment, which was terminated for this year due to concerns about the security of Internet voting. “Both military and civilian organizations, governments and embassies, now routinely send sensitive electronic messages in a secure manner,” Carey said.