Senate looks to shore up voting protections for overseas feds

Friday - 1/31/2014, 3:50am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

Download mp3

A group of 10 senators introduced legislation designed to make sure military members and overseas civilians have their election ballots counted, including mandates for new online systems and new requirements for state and local elections officials.

Congress' last attempt to boost overseas voter participation was in 2009 with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.

Among other changes, it required elections officials to mail out absentee ballots 45 days before an election to make sure they could make the round trip in the mail in time to be counted.

The 2012 election was the first presidential contest since that act's enactment, and its backers say it hasn't improved things as much as they hoped.

According to data from the Election Assistance Commission, only 69 percent of the overseas ballots voters requested made it back to their hometowns in time for election day. That compares to 84 percent for domestic absentee ballots, even though survey data shows military members are registered to vote at higher percentage rates than the general population.

"The 2012 election made clear that there are still too many barriers to military service members and their families having their votes actually counted, and we need to do more," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the lead sponsor of a new package of changes called the SENTRI Act. "While it may never be as easy for service members to vote while they're away from home, we owe them our best efforts to remove as many obstacles as possible."

The new bill stipulates states that don't manage to send absentee ballots to overseas voters before the 45 day window would have to send them via much more costly Express Mail. The states would have to submit a report to the Justice Department before every election reflecting how well they've complied with the law, so that DoJ can decide whether it needs to pursue enforcement action.

Agreement wide and far

Also, the Defense Department would have to create an online system that lets military members update their voter registration online, get their voter registration status electronically and sign official election documents electronically using their common access cards.

"The area most demanding of our attention is military voter assistance," Cornyn said. "The significant drop in absentee ballot requests in 2012 points to the need for DoD to enhance its assistance to put them more on par with 'motor-voter' style assistance programs that benefit civilians stateside. Ballots have a significantly better chance of reaching registered military voters if those service members are able to keep their mailing addresses current, which can be challenging because of the transient nature of military service. We tried to address that in the MOVE Act by creating voter assistance offices on every military base, but DoD has been resistant to that."

DoD, through its Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), says it agrees with almost all of the provisions of the bill.

Matt Boehmer, FVAP's director, said his organization already is taking some of the steps the senators are trying to mandate, plus some they are not.

DoD believes one primary reason absentee ballots don't make it to voters in time is because of the current mail forwarding scheme in the military postal system.

Today, a piece of mail usually isn't forwarded to a new address until it reaches the old overseas address, adding days or weeks to the final delivery time. So, the Postal Service, the State Department and DoD have agreed to use Pentagon funding to buy new mail processing equipment that will make sure address changes are handled before election mail leaves the U.S.

"The Military Postal Service Agency is serving as the lead agency to modernize military mail delivery," Boehmer said. "It will redirect election materials to overseas military and diplomatic addresses similar to how the civilian change of address system works, and it should be available by October of 2014. A change of address will happen right there at the local post office instead of having to wait all the way to an overseas location for that to change."

Boehmer said DoD also is working on a project to help make sure military voters do their part to notify local elections officials that their address has changed.

Under that initiative, internal human resources systems, such as the military's milConnect portal, will push service members to update their voter registration when they're conducting other tasks.

"When they change something on their healthcare benefits, for example, it'll prompt them and say, 'You just changed an address in this system, it's important to remember to notify your local election official too,'" Boehmer said. "From there, they'll be taken to fvap.gov so they can fill out a new federal postcard application online."