MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Overseas military voters from 16 states — including Missouri — and the District of Columbia are not given enough time to cast their ballots, partly because of reliance on snail mail, a new study shows.
The study released Tuesday by the Pew Center on the States was critical of the heavy dependence on slow mail systems to deliver ballots to voters overseas and found they often don't send out ballots early enough.
The study says 25 states need to improve the system to make sure overseas voters have enough time to cast ballots, but said that in 16 states and the District of Columbia, people living overseas, including military personnel, have "no time to vote."
In addition to Missouri, those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
The study also says some states, like Alabama, require voters to have ballots witnessed or notarized. A researcher for Pew, David Becker, said that requirement can add several days to the process. The study says states should provide at least 45 days for overseas voters to request, receive and cast ballots.
The study recommends states streamline the process by allowing voters to request a ballot electronically and for officials to send the ballot to military personnel by fax or e-mail.
Laura Egerdal, communications director for Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, said about 80 percent of overseas voters who requested ballots for the 2008 general election returned them and those votes were counted. She said Missouri law allows military voters in combat zones, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, to return ballots by e-mail or fax.
She said Missouri officials worked hard before last year's election at educating overseas voters and family members back home to make sure they understood the process for casting an absentee ballot.
"We made sure they knew which form to use and where to send it to. We did a much better job of getting the word out," Egerdal said.
South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson said his state is doing everything it can to get ballots to overseas citizens.
"The counties are very diligent about getting the ballots out as soon as they are available," Nelson said.
The report cites the problems of delivering mail to troops, saying it can take 15 days to deliver ballots and another 15 days to get the ballots mailed back.
"That's 30 days," Nelson said. "If there's somewhere where the time can be cut, that's a situation to deal with."
In Alabama, Secretary of State Beth Chapman said a state law that requires ballots be sent to military personnel and returned by U.S. Mail delays the process. She said voting officials are not even allowed to send ballots by parcel services such as UPS or FedEx. Chapman has proposed legislation that would allow overseas voters to cast ballots over a secure Internet connection.
"It's no surprise that Alabama is way behind on this. We've got to improve," Chapman said.
She said the current system is so slow, she believes many Alabama residents living overseas "just gave up a long time ago and quit trying to vote."
The Pew report said that because state's use vastly different methods, the process of military voting can take as few as eight days in Arizona and Kansas or as long as 88 days from start to finish in Alabama.
The report makes these recommendations for states:
- In some cases, allow use of a federal "write-in absentee ballot" where overseas voters would not get an official state ballot, but would be able to write-in their vote in certain races.
- Allow election materials to be transmitted to voters electronically.
- Build at least 45 days in the process for overseas voting.
- Eliminate the requirement that military voters have ballots notarized or witnessed.