- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

The system used by military personnel to cast absentee votes is still not working well, six years after the problem was highlighted by disqualified ballots in the contested Florida recount of 2000, election officials say.

But the Pentagon is releasing statistics and fact sheets to show that armed-forces voting is, in fact, increasing, with more avenues available to the estimated 1.7 million uniformed and civilian personnel in the states and abroad to obtain ballots.

This year, Congress has heard from many sources, including the election commission and the Government Accountability Office, that problems remain less than a month before the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, says the Pentagon has been reluctant to embrace the Integrated Voting Alternative Site (IVAS), a fast way to get ballots to far-flung troops via the Internet.

Congress started IVAS in 2004 by providing money in a defense-spending bill, but Mr. Burns had to block six Pentagon nominations before he got results, his office says. The Pentagon changed this summer from a pilot program to a permanent IVAS operation.

But the senator says the Defense Department lost precious time.

“If the current bureaucracy can’t do it, then we need to throw it out and start over with one that does,” he said.

By the Pentagon’s own count, only nine states participate in IVAS. The system works by allowing personnel to go to an IVAS Web site and request a ballot from their home county. An election official sends an e-mail alert, and the person then logs on to a secure server, prints the ballot, fills it out and returns it by postal mail.

“This program eliminates the most time-consuming step in the process: getting the ballots to a potentially moving target,” said a statement from the senator’s office.

A Senate aide says Mr. Burns’ attack on the bureaucracy was really criticism of David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The aide said Mr. Chu has shunned IVAS in favor of another Internet program.

The Pentagon is defending Mr. Chu’s record on making registration and voting more accessible.

“I think we are working very hard here to carry out the [IVAS] initiative,” said Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman. “We support the IVAS program. We believe that it’s working and this year has been very effective.”

The main voting problem for military personnel away from home is meeting the ballot deadline.

It takes on average 45 days to get an absentee ballot to the troops, have them fill it out and then mail it back to the election board. The constraint has resulted in late, disqualified ballots. In the tight 2000 Florida recount, where a majority of overseas service members voted for President Bush, Democratic lawyers fanned out to election boards to challenge any military ballot that did not strictly meet requirements.

While the Pentagon talks of voter progress, other officials see persistent problems.

Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told Congress that a summit of election officials last spring concluded that “the current voting process for military and overseas citizens is not working.” He blamed the time it takes to mail out and then receive ballots from people thousands of miles away.

Still, the federal voter-assistance program reports a higher military participation rate.

Mr. Chu has told the Senate Armed Services Committee that 73 percent of military personnel voted by absentee ballot in 2004, compared with 57 percent in 2000. The 2004 rate exceeded the 60.4 percent turnout of the general public.

An unscientific poll by the Army Times Publishing Co. in 2004 garnered e-mail responses from more than 4,000 service members. The results: 73 supported Mr. Bush and 18 percent Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. Nearly 60 percent identified themselves as Republicans and 13 percent as Democrats.

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