In a recent letter to President Bush, Theresa M. Petrone, a Democratic member of Chicago's Board of Elections, predicted that thousands of military absentee ballots would once again go uncounted. Disenfranchising Our Overseas Troops

Nearly 500,000 Americans are abroad, defending our freedom as members of our armed forces. In standing their post and protecting the rest of us back home, they make enormous sacrifices. They live in tiny compartments aboard submarines and in tents on the gritty desert. They spend months, even years, away from their families. Some give up their lives in service of their nation.

Thanks to these brave men and women, those of us back home will head to our local polling places this November and exercise our foremost right — the right to vote.

But in an unconscionable systemic failure, too many of the men and women in our military will find it difficult to cast their vote and more difficult to have it counted, even though they are defending that right far from home.

Members of the military who are posted abroad must vote by absentee ballot in the state where they last lived before shipping out. Every state has a system for distributing and counting these absentee ballots, and these systems feature a wide range of rules and requirements.

Usually, the process works something like this: A soldier abroad fills out an application for an absentee ballot and sends it to his local election official. The official processes the application and mails a ballot to the soldier a few weeks before the election. Once he receives it, the soldier must fill out his ballot and return it to the election official. Usually, it must arrive by Election Day. In some states, it may arrive up to two weeks later as long as it was postmarked or signed prior to Election Day. A few states even require that absentee voters have the signature on their ballot notarized — a difficult task when voting from a temporary camp in Iraq.

Needless to say, problems abound. The most critical of these is the shameful condition of the military postal system. Mail from the United States to overseas military posts usually takes about three weeks. Aside from being a disgraceful disservice to the troops, the lengthy delivery period for international military mail poses major problems for soldiers trying to vote because some states do not even distribute ballots until 30 days before Election Day. This makes it virtually impossible for the overseas military voter to fill out the ballot and have it back to the proper election authority on time.

There are other problems: during the Florida recount after the 2000 Presidential election, many localities had trouble determining the date of postmark on military absentee ballots. The dates were frequently illegible for one reason or another, so local election officials simply discarded the ballots. Many military ballots were not signed or notarized. Again, hundreds and perhaps thousands of military votes were excluded. These problems only came to light in Florida as a result of the intense scrutiny prompted by various recounts, but the same sorts of difficulties permeate electoral systems across the country.

After the debacle in 2000, the federal government mandated some absentee voting reforms, but they don't go far enough.

In a recent letter to President Bush, Theresa M. Petrone, a Democratic member of Chicago's Board of Elections, predicted that thousands of military absentee ballots would once again go uncounted. Petrone asked that the federal government force states to count absentee ballots until 14 days after the election, provided that the ballot was signed by Election Day. But this would require federal legislation, and there's little chance of any legislative fix passing Congress in time. Also, Petrone's proposal would do nothing to address the problems with the military postal service.

According to the Associated Press, 30 percent of military voters who requested absentee ballots in 2000 did not receive them in time to have their vote counted. In 2000, roughly 250,000 military voters applied to vote absentee. Now, with hundreds of thousands of additional troops posted in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the number of military personnel interested in voting absentee is expected to soar. Nearly 350,000 applications had already been requested as of mid-July.

The men and women protecting our nation deserve to have their votes counted, even if it means enduring a couple of weeks of uncertainty in tightly contested states.

It is incumbent on the Department of Defense (DOD) and the various state election authorities to ensure that they are. DOD has already pledged that all military absentee ballots will be returned to the states via Express Mail at no cost to the troops, and this will help to some degree. But the other fundamental problem remains with the states. There is absolutely no reason that ballots cannot be mailed to overseas voters sooner than 30 days before an election. Except in one or two states with very late primaries, the ballots are settled. The states could, if they wished, begin mailing the ballots sooner. At the same time, the states could, if they wished, extend their counting deadlines to ensure that military absentee ballots are counted. Both of these steps should be taken quickly, in time to safeguard this fall's election.

Longer term fixes are needed, too. First, DOD must reform the reprehensible military postal system. Second, states must codify sound but accommodating requirements for military absentee voters.

For now, we owe it to our men and women in uniform to see that their right to vote is protected, just as they protect our rights, including our right to make the trip to our polling place, through their service. We should all be ashamed if there is even the slightest doubt that the votes of our men and women in uniform could somehow be cast aside through a series of problems of our own making.

August 19, 2004
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