Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pew study -- overseas voters in 16 states and DC cannot effectively vote

A new study released by the Pew Center on the States' Make Voting Work program finds that overseas military voters in 16 states and the District of Columbia cannot effectively submit a valid ballot due to the way overseas ballots are processed. While it would be easy to conclude that moving toward online voting could be a solution, the folks at Pew have wisely not concluded this, pointing to research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Excerpts from today's Stars and Stripes article, by Leo Shane III, are featured below.

Overseas military voters from 16 states and the District of Columbia had little chance of successfully voting in the presidential election this year, according to a new study released Tuesday.

Researchers from The Pew Center on the States found that the slow pace of the postal services and the late mailing deadlines for absentee ballots made it nearly impossible for military voters in those 17 areas to have their ballot verified and counted.

"We’re failing in our responsibility to provide for military voters overseas," said David Becker, director of the Center’s Make Voting Work project. "While they’re serving America, our voting system is not serving them."

The average time for the process in those states was 66 days, and more than 80 days in states such as Georgia and Alabama, according to the report. Authors advocated faster delivery of ballots to those overseas voters, whether through better mail processing or use of fax and e-mail technology.

Three other states had only a one- or two-day margin of error for the paperwork’s travel though the mail, the report said. Six other states could process the ballots in time, but only if voters used potentially unsecure faxed or e-mailed ballots.


"The ability to successfully vote depends on what state you’re voting in. It shouldn’t matter what state you’re from, but it does," said Kil Huh, research director for the study.

The center advocates that all states eliminate rules requiring ballots be notarized or witnessed, and it wants officials to allow ballots to be faxed or e-mailed to voters. Huh said the cost of such moves would be minimal but potentially provide weeks more time for voters to cast a ballot.

But the group does not support allowing votes to be returned through the same electronic methods, even though 19 states have already authorized receiving completed ballots that way.

A recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology indicated virtually no security risks with delivering blank ballots to overseas voters via electronic methods but significant security issues with actually voting over e-mail or fax.

"We’re not saying that those kinds of systems can’t be developed in the future," Becker said. "But barring those solutions, it’s not a feasible option right now."

The study only tracked military ballots and only looked at voting systems in the 50 states and District of Columbia, not U.S. territories. Huh said the 25 states that do allow enough time for ballots to arrive and be returned provide a useful model for the other states which do not.

However, the Center is pushing for uniform standards across all 50 states, to simplify the process for overseas voters.

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