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undeterred Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Sep-22-08 08:20 PM
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Indiana's troops to benefit from virtual vote
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Voting by e-mail alleviates problem of ballots arriving too late to be counted

By Robert King
robert.king@indystar. com

For the first time, Hoosier soldiers, Marines and others serving in the far-flung outposts of Iraq and Afghanistan will be able to vote in November's election by e-mail. Troops have long been able to request absentee ballots by mail, but the time it can take for ballots to reach them and then return stateside can mean they arrive after the election is over.

According to the Pew Center on the States, more than two-thirds of the 1 million absentee ballots sent in by military and civilian overseas voters two years ago arrived too late to be counted. That problem spurred Indiana and 10 other states to offer e-mail as a far speedier and more predictable alternative. Now troops abroad will be able to request ballots through e-mail, print them out, mark their choices, scan them and send them back home -- all through a Department of Defense e-mail pipeline designed to prevent outside tampering.

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, an early supporter of the technology, said some aspects of the system are closely guarded by the Defense Department. But he is convinced that it is as safe as regular absentee voting. "If they are able to keep a military secret," Rokita said, "then they probably can keep these e-mails in a secure fashion."

In Iraq, where more than 3,000 Indiana National Guard troops are stationed, nearly all of the troops have access to e-mail. Many packed a laptop with their personal gear for the trip and others can use Internet-wired computers in common areas such as recreation halls. It isn't clear how many of the troops will vote by e-mail or another option unveiled in 2004, voting by fax.

Still, both of those voting methods have a major drawback: Ballot secrecy is lost when the e-mail or fax arrives in the office of county clerks, whose staff must read the messages and transfer the votes onto a paper ballot for counting.

"We have weighed the pros and cons of utilizing e-mail and fax to send in ballots, and ballot secrecy is weighted pretty heavily," 1st Lt. Eugene Maharry, an Indiana National Guardsman and a voter assistance officer, said in an e-mail from Iraq. He calls the old-fashioned paper absentee ballot still "the most preferred method."

Indiana was one of the first states to adopt rules for fax voting by overseas military personnel. But it quickly became obvious that e-mail was much more widely available than the ability to fax. The General Assembly approved e-mail voting for overseas troops and civilians in 2005. Just don't expect folks at home to get that option any time soon.

"Not tomorrow. I think it is a little bit of Star Wars," Rokita said. Election reform "seems to be more of an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary process."

Many Indiana counties, including Marion, are still finalizing their ballots and expect to have them finished and sent out by the end of September. The process extended a little later this year because the presidential conventions were staged later.

That concerns Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of the Pew Center's "Make Voting Work" program, that there won't be enough turnaround time for paper ballots to be sent from the states and then returned again in time for counting.

Indiana helps military personnel again by allowing their ballots to be counted even if they arrive as late as Nov. 14, so long as they were postmarked by Election Day. Civilian absentee voters have to get their absentee ballots in by Election Day.

When it comes to helping its service men and women vote from overseas, "Indiana really is a step ahead of many other states," Caudell-Feagan said. Troops were given advice early and often about how to register to vote and make their requests for the paper absentee ballot, Maharry said.

Such ballots are given the highest priority when it comes to military postal system sorting, said Shari Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Army Human Resources Command in Virginia. But she said the average transit time between the United States and the theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan is seven to eight days.

"We are encouraging them to get them early, and get them out and get them back here," Lawrence said.
That traditional paper ballot, Rokita said, is the best option for the ballot secrecy reason. But for troops who haven't already asked for a paper absentee, he hopes the e-mail route offers a timely alternative.

To make sure Hoosier troops understood their options, Rokita's office sent out e-mails with voting information to 3,100 of them stationed overseas. Despite their duties and constant threats of danger, many of the troops still follow the presidential race and are keenly interested in the outcome.

"I try to stay on top of the issues the best I can by watching the news in the dining facility, reading the paper, and visiting media Web sites," Maharry said. "This is an election of historical proportions, and if you can't get excited about making history, then what can you get excited for?"
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