To most people, absentee ballot fraud is not an interesting subject. While many people say they do not have confidence in “the system” when it comes to elections, few are worried about their own ballot not being counted. But for the thousands of military voters overseas, the thought of their ballots not being counted strikes a little closer to home.
To make matters worse, there is constant pressure to make voting faster, easier, and more accessible. And most changes that make it easier to vote also make it easier for a vote not to be counted.
So where does this leave an overseas voter? How can officials make sure his ballot gets counted—without allowing somebody else to steal his vote?
The Story Thus Far
Prior to the 2008 election, the Pew Center on the States released a report entitled “No Time to Vote.” According to Pew, over half the states mailed ballots to their overseas voters too late for the ballots to be returned in time to be counted.[i]
But just in case scholarly research did not make the point, the subsequent election did. In 2008, one in four overseas voters did not have his vote counted. This is even worse than it sounds, as the number four represents U.S. citizens overseas who actually received and voted their ballots. If we took into account those who did not, the number would be even worse. As it is, out of every four citizens overseas who actually submitted a ballot did not have it counted. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) released a report substantiating Pew’s numbers and calling for comprehensive national action to remedy the situation.[ii]
At this point, several states had already begun to take steps to remedy the situation internally. One such pioneer was Minnesota. At the advice of various election reform organizations, the state overhauled its procedures from the ground up. Between 2006 and 2008, Minnesota saw a 282% increase in overseas ballots voted; out of the 10,000 ballots mailed to overseas voters, a remarkable 8,000 were submitted.[iii]
The reasons for the increase? One was the effective use of the internet. Everything, from regulations and procedures to registration documents to emergency ballots, was available online. (The internet was also used to advertise these new resources.)
Another reason was the creation of new institutions and procedures to specifically handle overseas ballots. An ID number match system was implemented to protect the security of the ballots, and every county had an overseas ballot board to handle ballots coming in from abroad. An army officer in Afghanistan could cast his ballot and feel some certainty it would not be lost in the shuffle—a feeling that was also helped by the Minnesota voters themselves, who responded enthusiastically to a state campaign to (as they put it) protect the votes of their military voters.
The result of all this was that, of the 8,000 ballots cast, only 463 were rejected (a substantial decrease from the percentage rejected in 2006).[iv]
Yet in 2008, Minnesota was the exception, not the norm. Thus, in 2009, Congress passed the MOVE Act to require the rest of the states to implement similar procedures; a move applauded by activist groups on both sides of the aisle.[v] Among other things, the MOVE Act required states to mail overseas ballots 45 days before an election; it required states to make emergency ballots available online; and it removed an old requirement that overseas ballots be notarized.
“It is the least we can do for our troops to make sure their votes get counted when they are serving overseas,” said Schumer, the initial proponent of the bill. “This bill will remove the barriers that too often conspire to disenfranchise our military men and women. Thanks to this quick passage by the Senate, it will take effect in time for next year’s federal elections.”[vi]
Broadly speaking, the MOVE Act mandated that all 50 states meet several benchmarks Minnesota had already met. For voters, in the best-case scenario, this would mean a lot fewer headaches, and a much higher probability of their votes getting counted.
While the MOVE Act set goals, it did not, in most cases, require specific methods of achieving them. On one level, this was arguably sensible, since 50 states meant 50 different existing systems, and no bill could have been passed that synthesized them all. Each state would need to do different things to meet the requirements, and some would need to do more work than others.
But on another level, this approach created a lot of challenges for the future. While federal legislators can now pat each other on the back for passing the law, the burden of actually implementing the law falls on the states.
State Implementation: Hurdles Ahead
This means a steep learning curve for some states.
For one thing, the systems in place vary dramatically, both in initial quality and in their ability to make significant changes. Already, Sen. Schumer’s own state, New York, has made headlines for failing to meet the 45-day deadline to mail ballots. As the deadline came and went, New York City hadn’t mailed any at all. A disgusted Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the Board of Elections’ work “reprehensible,” but said it was par for the course.[vii]
As the state voting systems vary, so will the experiences had by overseas voters. And it remains to be seen whether the Department of Justice is serious about enforcing the MOVE Act. When it became clear New York would not meet its obligations, the department first granted the state a 15-day waiver, then declined to pursue legal action after that second deadline was not met. A department spokeswoman said the department was in “urgent discussions” with state election officials, but at that point planned no more drastic action.[viii] If the MOVE Act is not enforced, its value to overseas voters may prove limited.
But what of states that are committed to improving the experience of overseas voters? They too have hurdles to clear.
For one, since the MOVE Act eliminated notarization requirements, states must scramble to create new security systems. While the notarization requirement was often onerous, it did make it easier to know that the ballot had indeed been submitted by its intended recipient. Some states have mail ballot systems in place that can fairly easily be adapted to overseas voters. Others do not. Those states have to establish which alternative voter verification approach works best for voters in foreign countries, and this is not accomplished in one election cycle.[ix]
Another problem: the rush to improve election technology creates its own challenges. The Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, the emergency ballot available online, can create a headache for county election offices that are not ready for it. Election websites, as has also been documented by Pew, range from superb to atrocious and many are simply not equipped to handle the amount of information necessary to do what Minnesota did.[x] And submitting ballots electronically, while not as risky as actual online voting, does carry greater risks of identity theft. [xi]
But perhaps one of the toughest issues in the short term is states’ existing calendars. A 45-day window for the ballot’s round trip forces state political parties to have their primaries far earlier than before—often as early as mid-summer. There is a certain irony to moving the apparatus of whole election systems, shifting the dynamic of an entire election, because of (often) a few hundred people. And easy or hard, it takes time.
While no single issue makes compliance with the MOVE Act impossible, these examples demonstrate the challenges states face if they choose to try to comply—and the uncertainties they face if they do not. The MOVE Act was merely the beginning, not the end of a reform process.
[i] Pew Center for the States, “No Time to Vote,” January 2009 http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/NTTV_Report_Web.pdf, p. 3
[ii] Office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Press Release, May 2009 http://schumer.senate.gov/new_website/record.cfm?id=312970
[iii] Overseas Vote Foundation, “Minnesota Takes the Lead: Web Services and Outreach for Overseas and Military Absentee Voters Helped Determine Election Results,” May 2009 https://www.overseasvotefoundation.org/files/OVF-CS-MN09.pdf, p. 4
[iv] Overseas Vote Foundation, “Minnesota,” p. 2
[vi] Office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), “Senate Passes Bipartisan Bill to Ease Voting Process for Military, Overseas Voters,” October 2009 http://schumer.senate.gov/new_website/record.cfm?id=319278
[vii] Fox News, “Mayor Bloomberg Slams Board of Elections for Failure to Mail Ballots,” October 2010 http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/10/11/mayor-bloomberg-slams-board-of-elections-for-failure-to-mail-ballots/
[viii] Fox News, Bloomberg
[x] Pew Center on the States, “Being Online is Not Enough,” October 2008 http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/VIP_FINAL_101408_WEB.pdf
[xi] Clair Whitmer, “What the MOVE Act Means for You”
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.