Troops Have to Fight for Their Right to Vote

Active-duty military members arguably have more to lose than anyone else in Tuesday’s election, but voting can be an obstacle course for servicemen and -women overseas. The Dallas Morning News reports that in 2006 only one-third of the absentee ballots requested by U.S. armed forces personnel abroad were counted.

Dallas Morning News:

For U.S. troops serving overseas, nothing comes easy. Not even voting.

Military members may not have enough time to complete and mail in their absentee ballots for Tuesday’s election, thanks to slow mail delivery, lack of information sharing among election officials, and procedural errors.

In the 2006 elections, about a third of the close to 1 million absentee ballots requested by uniformed overseas voters were returned and tallied, essentially disenfranchising the remaining 600,000-plus service members, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

Barack Obama and John McCain have called on state election officials to reduce the voting obstacles for preventing military personnel from voting. And Texas Sen. John Cornyn sponsored a bill that passed the Senate this month directing the Department of Defense to make absentee voting easier for service members stationed abroad. Mr. Cornyn has also launched a related Web site.

But problems persist, as illustrated by one Garland native’s struggle to vote in Tuesday’s election.

Air Force Special Agent Robert Douglass Davis, stationed in Europe, moved to a new base in 2007. In April, he tried to change the mailing address on his voter registration using an application on the Texas secretary of state’s Web site.

But Agent Davis still hadn’t received his ballot by early October. He called the Dallas County Elections Department long distance but encountered problems with the county’s pre-recorded directory.

His mother, Susan, called the elections department and was told that her son’s change of address had been received by the department but that his absentee ballot was mailed to his old base.

Because the mail-forwarding service at the base had expired, Agent Davis didn’t receive that ballot. Elections officials said they would send him a ballot at his new base, but that he would have to request a change of address in writing to update the registration on file with the county.

Robert’s father, Doug, was livid about his son’s troubles.

“I think it’s damn pathetic,” said the elder Mr. Davis, who believes the delay will keep his son from voting. “It’s just due to incompetence.”

But a county elections spokeswoman said the problem is that any changes made to the rolls using the secretary of state’s address-change application aren’t automatically transferred to the county rolls.

“It does not update our permanent database,” said Vickey Bynum, early voting mail supervisor for the department. “We manually have to go in and make changes to the permanent file.”

And county Election Administrator Bruce Sherbet said the secretary of state’s new database and the change-of-address forms were added only in 2006. He said similar technology to update county registration information is still several years away.

Mr. Sherbet said Agent Davis’ absentee ballot was remailed to his new base address Oct. 21. He said there is a five-day window after Election Day when ballots from abroad can still be received and counted toward a final vote tally.

As of Thursday, Agent Davis still had not received his ballot.

Ms. Bynum said that if he believes his absentee ballot will not reach the elections department in time, he can download and mail a federal write-in ballot – but he would be able to vote only for president and U.S. senator.

Faced with that possibility, Agent Davis said he’d opt for the write-in ballot.

“It’s better than not being able to vote for anything,” he said, but “It’s kind of like consolation-prize voting.”