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States work to make absentee voting easier

Oct. 30, 2007 - 04:31AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 30, 2007 - 04:31AM  |  
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Two nonprofit projects one helping military and overseas voters on a worldwide scale, and another limited to military and overseas voters who are residents of Okaloosa County, Fla. are making strides that could change the landscape for absentee voters.

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Two nonprofit projects one helping military and overseas voters on a worldwide scale, and another limited to military and overseas voters who are residents of Okaloosa County, Fla. are making strides that could change the landscape for absentee voters.

Okaloosa County officials plan to literally bring the voting booth to military and overseas voters in three overseas areas for the 2008 general election.

http://www.militarytimes.com/static/projects/pages/103007brief.pdf">See the breakdown of absentee voting statistics

Through Operation BRAVO [Bring Remote Access Voting Overseas] Foundation, officials will put kiosks in and around Ramstein, Germany; RAF Mildenhall, England; and Kadena Air Base, Japan, said Pat Hollarn, supervisor of elections for the county and the wife of a retired Air Force pilot.

The kiosks will be available only for the general election. They will be open for voting probably 10 to 15 days before the election, and likely will stay open until the time the polls close on the U.S. East Coast, she said.

For thorough documentation, she said, she will send two people from the county election office to each site.Votes from an estimated 700 to 900 people will be transmitted via a secure system from the kiosk to a secure site that goes directly into her office, Hollarn said, and a canvassing officer will decrypt the vote.

The county has approval from the Florida secretary of state for the pilot project.

Operation BRAVO has a partnership with Scytl Secure Electronic Voting S.A., a provider of secure remote voting technology with extensive experience in international projects.The U.S. Election Commission has found that about half of service members attempting to cast absentee ballots, particularly from abroad, are unable to do so, for a variety of reasons. A number of organizations are trying to solve the problems, said Michael Caudell-Feagan, project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Make Voting Work.

In addition to the Okaloosa County pilot, for example, Texas has a new system that will allow clerks to e-mail ballots to service members with secure e-mail addresses, he said. Make Voting Work funded a new Web site developed by the nonprofit Overseas Vote Foundation, designed to make it easier for absentee voters to register, as part of a larger effort to help modernize elections by making voting more convenient without compromising accuracy.

"Our immediate concern is military voters on the front lines and other overseas voters," Caudell-Feagan said, citing concerns that much registration and absentee ballot mail will be competing with holiday mail because of some states' primary schedules.

The new Web site, at www.overseasvotefoundation.org">www.overseasvotefoundation.org, helps troops and civilian U.S. citizens abroad register without having to sift through mountains of information by finding their correct jurisdiction for them. Voters fill out the form online, print it out and sign it, then mail it to the local election address provided by the Overseas Vote Foundation.

The registration is available for absentee military voters living in the U.S. and overseas. But for civilians, it is available only for those voting from overseas areas.

"Don't downplay the effect this will have on the military voter; mail is now taking two weeks to get to them," said Bob Carey, a Navy reservist and senior fellow with the National Defense Committee, a grass-roots group that deals with issues such as military voting.

"An intuitive, drop-down menu … will make a world of difference for military members and for their voting assistance officers," Carey said. "I hear it all the time. It's a huge issue."

Overseas Vote Foundation collected necessary information from states and local jurisdictions and developed a Web site that prompts users for information needed to register in their jurisdiction. No authentication takes place on the Web site; that's up to the local election official who gets the registration.

The Web site does not store confidential information such as Social Security numbers and complete birth dates, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and chief executive officer of Overseas Vote Foundation.

The site stops short of letting voters register electronically much less actually vote over the Internet but it makes the first step of registering easier.

Even if online registration was available, most states do not allow it.

"It would be great if we could, but the technology is not there yet," said Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. "With the vulnerabilities that exist on the Internet, we need to get electronic voting right."

The foundation previously developed a system that allows voters to download registration forms, but when funding dried up, that technology left the Web site in September, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

This new project also includes other elements such as a voter help desk, an easily accessible election official directory, and a state-specific voter information directory.

"Many military members are falling through the cracks" of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. "I constantly get e-mails from captains saying, ‘Can you help us register our entire unit?' Of course! I wonder where their [voting assistance officer] is. But they know their unit needs to vote and are looking for a way."

Pew Charitable Trusts donated $100,000 for the project. The Pentagon also has received $600,000 from Congress to develop an electronic voter registration system, which has not yet been launched.

Individuals in states are taking their own steps in attempts to make voting easier for military members, though not always successful. Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman, said she asked for legislation in the past session, supported by the governor and many members of the Legislature, which would allow Internet voting, but several election officials from counties got the bill killed. Meanwhile, she said, her office will take steps to get the word out about the new registration tool.

No Okaloosa County money is being used for the pilot project, Hollarn said, and she and her assistant supervisor and others working on the project are doing so "because we are passionate about it and it doesn't matter to us that we are not being paid" for their time, she said.

Hollarn, the wife of a retired Air Force pilot, spends much of her own time working on the Okaloosa County overseas kiosk project. But she also traditionally gives careful attention to out-of-county voters in a variety of ways. For example, on Oct. 15, election officials sent cards to notify them about election dates, and to verify their addresses.

"We've picked up quite a few changes, and it helps us update our records," she said.

Many of her staff members are military spouses or retirees.

"I was an absentee voter, and many of my staff members have been absentee voters," she said. "We know what it's about."

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