Of course, “best practices” depends on what your objectives are. Generally, they are what most efficiently and effectively fulfill your objectives. However, best practices should not be seen as a final condition. When improvements can be made, they should be made.
Currently, there is something like six million Americans overseas who are eligible to vote. Nearly a million are in the employ of the federal government, including civilians and military and their voting age family members. Travelers, students, missionaries, business people, and workers of various sorts make up the rest.
Every state in the Union has at least some overseas voters. Texas has the most, with over a half million. Vermont has the least with about 11,000. Around a dozen states have over 125,000 UOCAVA voters each. One would think that the primary objective for every state government with overseas voters would be to facilitate their desire to vote. Believe it or not, however, that is not what happens in practice in several states.
A PEW study found that in 2008, 25 states and DC routinely sent out absentee ballots so late that they could not be voted and returned in time to be counted. How frustrating is that?
Political scientist Claire Smith suggests that a state’s policy for facilitating overseas voting should be measured by asking “does the policy make overseas voting easy or difficult?” Clearly, DC and those 25 states get Fs on this scale – they made overseas voting not only difficult, but impossible! Don’t look there for best practices.
Overseas voters do want to vote. When their requested ballots in the 2006 election arrived in time for them to return the voted ballots, their participation rates were very high – 98% of Texans, and over 80% of Minnesotans and folks from Wyoming. This is much higher than that of the citizens back home, where approximately 60% of registered voters voted in the 2006 election. On average, the percent of UOCAVA registered voters voting that year was in the high 70s, if they timely received their ballots.
Fortunately, “the times they are a-changing.” The MOVE Act, which President Obama signed into law last year, provides some financial backing, and guidance, for states that need to beef up their overseas voter programs. For federal elections, the states must send out requested absentee ballots at least 45 days before the election. The states must also provide fax and email service for voters to request absentee ballots, and for sending those ballots out to the voters who request them. Once all the states comply with these rules, the problems of delay will be history. This year, most states are shooting for compliance by using the Internet to take requests for absentee ballots, and for sending out blank ballots.
Thirty-three states are also going to provide the option of returning the voted ballot by fax or email. The MOVE Act allows, but does not require, voted ballots to be returned over the Internet. For example, a ballot received by fax can be voted and returned the same way. Or, a ballot received by email can be printed on paper, voted, and sent back as an email attachment or by fax.
According to Smith, Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa County, had great success in 2008 using the Internet. The county set up a user friendly website to provide voter information for voters at home and away. Overseas voters could request an absentee ballot online, receive it via email or fax, vote, and return it electronically. Over 5000 overseas voters from this one county voted successfully with this process. Incidentally, there were no reports of hacking or other types of attack on the county’s system.
The District of Columbia has taken at least one baby step towards improving its service to overseas voters. It has set up an easy to use website with information for all voters. As of today, the site says that overseas voters can fill out an absentee ballot request form online, print it, and sign it. But the application must be returned by snail mail. Presumably, a blank ballot will be sent out by snail mail, and the voted ballot will be returned back the same way.
However, maybe the information on the website will soon be changed. In June, The Washington Post reported that, beginning in September, DC will test a system for actually voting online. Registered overseas voters can apply on the website to vote absentee, and receive a personal identification number. Using their PIN when it comes time to vote, they can log on to DC’s secure voting website. Then they vote and close the page. Any time later they can check back to see if their ballot was counted.
In my opinion, DC’s website voting project is the best way to go. We will have to wait to see what happens.