What Price Freedom?
Soldiers voted, but were their votes counted?
By LISA HOFFMAN
Dec 13, 2005, 06:06
More U.S. troops voted in the 2004 election than ever before, according to a new Pentagon study. But critics say that the report by the Federal Voting Assistance Program sheds little light on the most important question: How many of their votes were actually counted?
The study, based on questionnaires sent to those in uniform overseas and on the home front, found that nearly 8 out of 10 service members said they voted in the election, which included the closely contested presidential race.
That amounted to a 10 percent increase in military turnout over that in the 2000 election and the highest ever for those in uniform. Of the ballots cast this time, 53 percent were absentee _ a sharp increase from the 37 percent who voted long distance the last time when no U.S. troops were at war overseas.
The study cited high interest in the election as one of the spurs for the increased participation, along with the availability of electronically transmitted absentee-ballot requests and the voting program's extensive informational Web site, which was accessed more than 8 million times between November 2003 and December 2004, the study said.
But Samuel Wright, who has been a military voting-rights advocate for more than 20 years, said the study does not reflect how many of the troops' ballots made it to local voting registrars in time to be counted, or how many GIs requested ballots but never received them.
The survey "obscures an important fact: disenfranchisement of military and overseas absentee voters remains alarmingly high," said Wright, who heads the military voting-rights project at the National Defense Committee advocacy group. "When it comes to actually voting, the current system fails miserably."
His organization did its own survey of local officials after the 2004 election and found that the ballots of at least 1 in 4 service members overseas were never counted. Of those who tried to vote, about 30 percent were unable to do so because they didn't receive ballots or got them too late.
These snafus came despite a concerted effort by the Pentagon to fix problems that marred the 2000 vote. Among other glitches, hundreds of military ballots in Florida were thrown out because of their late arrival or improper postmark.
Special measures were ordered in 2004 to try to make sure the 160,000 U.S. troops in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time were able to vote successfully. The Pentagon report does not indicate the voting-participation rate of those in the war zones.
Wright and Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, director of the Overseas Vote Foundation, also criticized the fact that the same Pentagon office in charge of the voting program also did the study of its own effectiveness.
And they said troops will continue to be disenfranchised as long as Internet or other electronic voting is not allowed. The Pentagon had hoped to allow 100,000 troops and other U.S. citizens abroad to vote via the Internet in the 2004 election, but cancelled the experiment after questions were raised about the security of such a voting system.
"Despite progress made in recent years, most states still conduct absentee voting essentially as they did during World War II, by shipping pieces of paper around the world by snail mail," Wright and Dzieduszycka-Suinat said in a critique of the Pentagon report.