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Contests in battleground states could hinge on 'invisible' overseas voters

Mark Duncan / AP

Stephen Doell stacks boxes of vote-by-mail ballots at the Cuyahoga County Board of elections in Cleveland, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. Statewide ballot questions, including a politically charged collective-bargaining issue, have amped up off-year election early voting that ended Friday.

Since the 2000 recount in Florida, voting procedures have been under the microscope; in close races, painstaking legal details and arcane rules can determine the results. 

 Among those details is the handling of ballots cast by hundreds of thousands of “invisible” overseas voters. In the swing state of Virginia this November, 10,000 votes could decide the outcome in the presidential race, or the U.S. Senate race. In 2006, Democrat Jim Webb won Virginia’s Senate seat by a margin of 9,329 out of the nearly 2.4 million votes that were cast, a mere four-tenths of one percent margin of victory.


 

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Likewise in 2008, in another battleground state, Missouri, Republican presidential candidate John McCain beat Democrat Barack Obama by 3,903 votes, a one-tenth of one percent margin.

Voters who are outside the country could provide the winning margin: Virginia had more than 29,000 overseas voters who cast ballots in 2008, while Missouri had about 13,000 – easily enough in each state to swing a close election.

All the more reason for Americans who are living or stationed abroad, those serving in the military, or working or studying in Israel, China, or elsewhere to vote -- and for their votes to be counted.

Even though U.S. troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, more than 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, Marines, and Air Force personnel are still serving overseas. Especially for Americans in uniform, stationed in far-flung places from Afghanistan to Okinawa, voting this November will require an extra effort. Here’s a guide to what the federal government and the states are doing to make it easier for them to vote.

How many American voters are there overseas?

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, about 682,000 votes were submitted for counting in 2008 by Americans living in foreign countries. In the 2010 midterm elections, that number fell to about 197,000.

The number of potential voters who may be living abroad on Election Day is difficult to gauge. The Census counts only people present inside the United States. The State Department has data on the number of Americans in each foreign country, but does not release that data.

But a new study sponsored by the Overseas Vote Foundation estimates that there are 523,000 Americans living in Mexico, nearly 200,000 in Canada, and about 163,000 in Israel, the top three countries for Americans living abroad.

What legal right do Americans living abroad have to vote?

A 1986 law called the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires that states allow U.S. civilians living abroad and active-duty uniformed military personnel and their family members to register and vote by absentee ballot in elections for federal offices.

A 2009 law, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, or MOVE Act, requires states to transmit absentee ballots to overseas voters no later than 45 days before a federal election.

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Hans von Spakovsky,  an election law analyst  at the conservative Heritage Foundation, complains that UOCAVA, unlike the 1965 Voting Rights Act, does not create a “private right of action” so that legal advocacy groups can’t help members of the military file lawsuits against states when they do not comply with the law.

The Justice Department did file lawsuits against four states and the territory of Guam for failing to send overseas ballots out in time for the 2010 elections.

The chief elections official in most states is the secretary of state, and several of them argue that they don’t have authority over – and shouldn’t be blamed for the shortcomings of -- county elections officials who are the ones with the responsibility of sending out absentee ballots.

For an American business executive working overseas, in which state is his or her vote counted?

The voter sends his ballot to the last jurisdiction in which he resided and was a registered voter. So the businessman who’d lived in and registered to vote in Allentown, Pa. and is now working in Germany, will send his ballot back to Allentown.

What about 21-year old soldier from a town in Colorado who joined the Army right after high school and who is now stationed in Afghanistan and wants to register and vote?

He’d be eligible to register and vote in the place where he lived before he entered active duty, which is most likely his parents’ residence just before he entered the military, unless he had changed his state of residence after that point.

He can use The Federal Post Card Application to register and to request an absentee ballot. The Federal Post Card Application is available at the Federal Voting Assistance Program web site, www.fvap.gov.

Which states have the largest number of military and overseas voters?

In 2008, nearly half of all of ballots sent to overseas voters were sent from five states: Florida, California, Texas, New York and Washington.

What’s the biggest reason that men and women serving abroad in the military do not vote?

Nearly 30 percent of military voters overseas are not receiving their ballots in time to fill out the ballot and send it back to their state by Election Day, said Candace Wheeler, the deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, who spoke at a conference  Friday in Washington sponsored by the Overseas Vote Foundation.

Due to the frequent changes of location and the unpredictability of military life, “it’s not that they may not want to vote, it’s not always easy to vote,” she said. 

Even if the election official in the city or town where the soldier is registered conscientiously sends him an absentee ballot, it may not catch up with him if he has deployed from one place to another. 

And it may be diff for a deployed soldier or Marine to send the ballot back to his hometown in time for it to be counted. Michigan, for example, requires the paper ballot to be at the local precinct by 8pm on Election Day. “That’s really where it becomes problematic,” said Jocelyn Benson, a law professor at Wayne State University and founder of Military Spouses of Michigan. Other states such as Florida will count the absentee ballot if it is postmarked by Election Day.

Tom Tarantino, a former Army captain who served in Iraq and manages legislative relations for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the federal government and the states had done a better job in recent years in getting ballots to military personnel overseas. But he said, “One of the things we haven’t quite figured out yet is: is low voter turnout (among military personnel overseas) because of the structural problems to access (to voting)… or is it because of apathy?”

Tarantino said even when a soldier is at a base in the United States, registering to vote and voting is often not his highest priority. If “I’m a 21-year old E-4, I’m worried about training myself so I don’t get myself killed next time I go overseas,” he said. Voting won’t likely be top priority for such a soldier, Tarantino said.

What are the states and the federal government doing to make it easier for overseas voters to cast their ballots?

Bob Carey, the director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said, “When it takes 20 or 30 days to get a ballot overseas to a military person at a forward operating base or a combat outpost; we want to reduce that to 20 or 30 milliseconds.”

His agency’s website, FVAP.gov, provides a quick way to help overseas Americans register and vote. “We’re trying to take the entire process and make it seamless, quick intuitive and easy,” Carey said.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program also is giving out $20 million in grant money to states to facilitate on-line ballot delivery to military personnel abroad. New Jersey, for example, is using some of its $800,000 in federal money to help its county boards of elections automatically process ballots from overseas voters that are e-mailed back in a PDF file.

Paper military ballots being mailed back to the United States are treated as express mail which is the highest level of service.

Some states have websites that allow overseas voters to check if their ballot was received and counted. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted says that at his state’s Ohio Military Votes web site “we give them a tracking number so that they can follow their actual envelope and their ballot back to their Board of Elections to ensure that they receive it and it was counted.”