Record numbers of Americans abroad have registered, but bureaucratic snafus may prevent many from actually voting.
Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat is pumped. Two weeks ago, sitting in an Internet cafe on Munich’s Odeonplatz, the software marketer who crafted a hugely successful voter registration Web site, pulls up numbers that show a remarkable spike in Americans overseas mobilizing to defeat George W. Bush. Between her site and another out of Hong Kong, Democrats have registered 140,000 new voters, 40 percent of them from swing states — and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Americans abroad, roused to a boiling fury by a Bush doctrine that has smeared America’s good name across the globe, are looking like the “silent swing vote” in several key battleground states. Overseas registration for both parties is up by 400 percent over 2000; estimates put the tally of possible civilian votes as high as 2 million.
Then the panicked e-mails start flooding in. Today, less than two weeks before the tightest presidential race in memory, untold thousands of overseas voters still have not received their ballots — and clearly won’t be able to get them back in time. Late primaries and legal challenges to Ralph Nader’s appearance on the ballot delayed mailings from half the battleground states. In swing states, including Florida, Ohio and New Mexico, different versions of the ballot have gone out, sowing wild confusion. In Pennsylvania alone, at least three versions were mailed overseas, in successive, chaotic waves — with Nader and without him, plus a blank one-size-fits-all ballot with no names at all.
Activists now fear that huge numbers of Americans overseas — both military and civilian — may be as disenfranchised as they were in 2000, when anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of overseas ballots, depending on the county, just plain never showed up. But, far from helping civilians, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, has dragged its feet. A small liaison office based in the Pentagon, the FVAP provides voting materials to the departments of Defense and State for soldiers and civilians abroad and preaches overseas election law to thousands of local election officials back home.
The Government Accountability Office excoriated the agency for losing thousands of overseas votes in 2000, but the FVAP insists it has corrected its problems this year. Frustrated civilian advocates, however, say the FVAP remains biased and ineffective. Despite reforms, they attest, it still has not shaken its Pentagon roots: It spends the bulk of its energy getting out a heavily Republican vote among a half-million service people — but has failed the far greater numbers of civilians (an estimated 4 million, by most counts) who tend to vote a different way.
The tsunami of overseas civilian voters this year has only made the inequity more glaring. The agency was overwhelmed by a flood that has clogged its fax lines, telephones and e-mail. It has blocked access to its Web site to civilian voters abroad, given military voters access to electronic ballot-request systems that civilians cannot use, and subcontracted sensitive election work to a company with strong Republican ties. For months, it failed to heed requests from the State Department to post an emergency substitute ballot on its Web site that will mainly help civilians living far from consulates and military bases. Finally, on Oct. 21, with only 12 days till the election, it will post a downloadable version of the federal write-in absentee ballot, known as FWAB: a last-ditch device intended for the precise situation in which thousands of overseas voters now find themselves.
Those who’ve busted their guts to get out the overseas civilian vote on both sides are relieved but still angry. “Considering 2000 and the fact everybody knew this was going to be a close race, they should have seen it coming,” says Joan Hills, co-chair of Republicans Abroad. “The obstacles that have been thrown up are incredible,” says Jim Brenner, executive director of AOK (Americans Overseas for Kerry), an arm of the Democratic National Committee. Samuel F. Wright, director of the Military Voting Rights Project of the National Defense Committee, and a Navy Reserve officer who has spent 25 years observing the FVAP, says “Frankly, I’m not impressed with them. They’re sort of going through the motions. I’ve been pinging on DoD for four years that this is the perfect situation for the emergency ballot.”
Voters who have requested but not received their ballot by now can dispatch the FWAB in its place. (If the real ballot subsequently arrives, election officials are required to discard the FWAB and count the regular ballot.) A million hard copies of the FWAB have been sent to military bases in Germany and Asia and to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — two for every member of the military, Wright says — who surely deserve them. But on the civilian side, the record is spottier. The State Department, charged with helping civilians overseas, ordered its consulates and embassies to stockpile the form. But Democrats Abroad reports that many have been caught short-handed and that direct voter requests to the FVAP have gone unfulfilled. In one pathetic twist, employees of DaimlerChrysler in Stuttgart had to beg forms from the military at the gate of the base last week, a voting officer said.
Because so much hangs on key states, and on the possibly widespread use of an untested, little-known ballot, the potential for disaster is enormous. “If this election is close, 2000 is going to look like a cakewalk,” says Margo Miller, a London-based lawyer for AOK. “It’s going to be so messy in so many places, the fact that the FWAB hasn’t been easier to get is inexcusable.”
The Pentagon responds that the two major parties began asking for the online FWAB only in late September and that it has moved “mountains of bureaucracy” to get the form online. Starting now, the tiny bureau of 14 civil servants in suburban Virginia will get the word out to election officials in 3,142 American counties that the downloaded version of the write-in ballot is good to go.
But the program’s record does not inspire much confidence. Indeed, voters contacting officials to ask about the ballot have been shocked at the ignorance they’ve encountered. In Nepal, one embassy worker said the ballot could be mailed from the United States, which it cannot; in Chester County, Pa., an election supervisor had no idea what it was. Says Wright of the Military Voting Rights Project: “Nobody has ever heard of it. The FVAP does show up at meetings and presentations, but I bet a lot of the 5,000 election officials don’t go to those meetings, judging from the very basic questions we get back.”
While waiting for the FVAP to act, both parties gyrated over the Internet. AOK put up its own version online with the disclaimer that no one knew if such ballots would be accepted; Democrats Abroad and the two main registration Web sites did not. Republicans Abroad then snitched the AOK form, without the disclaimer, and put it on its site, only to shamefacedly pull it off when told that, until the FVAP formally approved it, nobody could use the darn thing. AOK finally sent out 25,000 hard copies at its own expense to voters from swing states who’d signed up on the Overseas Vote 2004 Web site.
The overarching problem is the scant resources allotted civilian voters, who outnumber the military overseas by at least 8 to 1. While all applaud the goal of making sure men and women fighting for our country can exercise their right to vote, civilians point out that they are Americans, too. And the FVAP has a history of favoring the military, not least because the Department of Defense has a captive, easily identified audience and far more money and muscle than the State Department. Citizens abroad are far harder to find than soldiers: Embassies have direct contact only with a small minority of those who have registered to be alerted and evacuated in case of a disaster — though one might call mass disenfranchisement a disaster of another degree.
Highly publicized missteps this year have hardly restored faith in the FVAP. Civilian voters still have trouble getting through to the agency and are barred from the e-mail ballot-request and delivery Web site that is available to soldiers from ten states. More worryingly, a pilot e-mail voting system signed on to by Missouri, Utah and North Dakota, in which soldiers can e-mail ballots to a contractor that then faxes those ballots to local jurisdictions, is being operated by Omega Technologies, headed by a former Republican Party donor, according to the New York Times.
The Times also reports that earlier this week two Democratic members of Congress, Henry Waxman of California and Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the FVAP. Among their concerns is that the agency’s online ballot-retrieval system is not open to most civilians abroad.
Miller, the AOK lawyer, says the FVAP, which moved only two years ago from the Pentagon department that buys soap and toilet paper into the personnel department, “is basically focused on the military and doesn’t care.” A Department of Defense insider involved in getting out the vote overseas puts it more harshly: “The senior military leadership will only admit they have a responsibility to help civilians get involved in elections if you force it down their throat. They’re only interested in the soldiers.”
The Pentagon denies these charges. As each misstep has occurred, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Charles Abell has defended the FVAP, saying it is making a heroic effort to reach all citizens overseas through voting workshops and toll-free telephone numbers. Indeed, all observers agree that the FVAP has gone to extraordinary lengths this year to get out the military vote. Still, Democrats suspect that in the case of the online ballot, it’s no accident that the agency did not move faster: The measure mainly benefits civilians, many more of whom will support John Kerry than their counterparts in the military. Dzieduszycka-Suinat frets darkly that “higher up, someone is saying, ‘Make sure there are problems.’” From the perspective of Wright, from the Military Voting Rights Project, political pressure is a given. “When Clinton was in charge, they tried to suppress the military vote for that very reason,” he says. “I would not disagree,” he says, that politics this year, too, plays a role.
Faced with a voting program that at best is ineffective, and at worst partisan, ordinary citizens have been forced to pick up the slack. Wright’s organization, for instance, blitzed the country’s election offices with faxed alerts telling them how to process the write-in ballot. And it is thanks mainly to the efforts of two smart groups of expatriates that tens of thousands of new voters made it through the registration process at all. The FVAP distributed millions of registration postcards, but without help, the complex rules daunted many civilians. The State Department, stretched thin by new visa regulations imposed after 9/11, has nowhere near the resources in its consulates to help citizens that the Department of Defense has deployed for its soldiers abroad, a high-ranking official said. Though it has done its best to walk civilians through the 369-page “Black Book” of state-by-state election rules, “we literally don’t have the staff to be able to do this,” the official said. The upshot: There is a military voting assistance officer for every 30 to 50 soldiers, but the onus is on the civilian to fill out the form alone.
Democrats Abroad thus began the campaign season camped at card tables on foreign street corners and screenings of English-language movies, walking voters one by one through the Byzantine process. In late May, Dzieduszycka-Suinat and Mitch Wolfson, head of AOK Germany, looked at each other and said, in the words of Wolfson: “There has to be a better way.” In July, they took the federal registration form, simplified it, and lobbed it into cyberspace. Beyond the 140,000 mostly Democrats who registered online, another 170,000 physically registered through Democrats Abroad, according to John McQueen, the group’s international campaign chair. Thousands more signed up through another clever Web site, the Amsterdam-based Tell an American to Vote.
What infuriates AOK more than anything else, though, is the vast disparity in money and energy between the military and civilian efforts. Overseas civilians, who turn out at half the rate of the military, arguably need more help, they say. While FVAP spent its $5.5 million budget mainly to reach half a million soldiers — a ratio that works out to $11 per vote — the Democratic National Committee spent $50,000 on a Web site that worked out to less than 75 cents a vote.
Republicans eschewed pavement-pounding and bought dozens of ads in the military Stars & Stripes, International Herald Tribune and English-language papers in key countries like Mexico, Canada and Israel, which together host some 1.5 million eligible American voters, says Hills of Republicans Abroad. Registrations are up fourfold over 2000. The Bush campaign is focused on large communities of American retirees overseas and counting on its traditional bases among businesspeople abroad and the military, where, Hills says, “we’re very confident we’re going to get a strong majority.”
Which way these hordes of new voters go is, in fact, the big overseas question — assuming they get to vote. Democrats and Republicans alike see gold in both the civilian and military camps. What’s undisputed is that the Bush administration has galvanized overseas voters as never before. “The entire world is against Bush, and we reflect that view that America has lost all its credibility abroad,” says McQueen of Democrats Abroad. “I was tired of cringing in the supermarket whenever I spoke English to my kids, knowing how much we as Americans were hated,” says Dzieduszycka-Suinat. Hills, for her part, reports that many Republicans, angered at what they see as unjust attacks, are coming out in equal droves to support the president. On both sides, stories abound of older Americans, and dual citizens who’ve kept their American passports, emerging like Rip Van Winkle to vote for the first time in 30 or 40 years.
In reality, the political affiliation of these voters is unknown. Both sides claim a 60 percent edge: Democrats, based on a Zogby study, say that Americans with passports tend to vote liberal. Republicans, meanwhile, cite international business and the conservatism of Pentagon civilian employees and soldiers. Yet both estimates are what military people call SWAG — scientific wild-ass guesses — about a woolly and ever-growing overseas population of civil servants, diplomats, employees of global businesses, students, journalists, artists, academics and, yes, soldiers on the battlefield.
Since January, when the Pentagon decreed “100 percent contact,” every officer and enlisted man or woman has had a registration application pressed into his or her hands. Soldiers have been exhorted to vote at daily formation and while watching ballgames on Armed Forces TV, and they are reminded that “It’s Your Future — Vote for It” on the bottom on their paychecks. After the “horror story” of 2000, the military is “extremely vigilant” this time around, says Capt. Christina Maxwell-Borges, a voting assistance officer at the U.S. Army Installation Management Agency in Stuttgart.
At U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Heidelberg, voting activists and Americans who’ve worked for the Army for decades say ordinary soldiers are more motivated than they’ve ever seen. Even with the massive deployment of voting officers, a nonpartisan citizens group like the NAACP, which conducted registration drives on base, was swamped. “Often we couldn’t keep up with the demand,” says Billee Manigault, an NAACP volunteer. “There’s a definite interest in participating,” echoes Charles Keene of Democrats Abroad and the NAACP. “From almost everyone you heard, it was, ‘You better believe I’m going to vote.’”
Despite several recent polls showing staunch support for President Bush among high-ranking officers, soldiers on base and Pentagon civilians active in Democratic politics say the mood in the military is far more mixed. The controversial mission in Iraq has brought a sea change in political attitudes on base, these observers report. McQueen, a retired military civil servant, says, “You’re not seeing the kind of pressure to vote Republican you always had in the past.”
The strong pro-Republican culture that emerged in the military in the wake of Vietnam has begun to splinter, many observers say. A report in the Washington Monthly last year described rank-and-file soldiers, who are disproportionately nonwhite, working-class and female, as increasingly diverging from an ideologically conservative officer corps. “For a long time here, Democrats were in the closet,” concurs Trenton Browne, a military security contractor who works on bases from Heidelberg to Kaiserslautern. “Now in the lower ranks you hear people speaking openly about their dissent.”
Gauging the overseas vote thus becomes a numbers game. Military turnout at home and abroad is high. More than 60 percent of soldiers overseas voted in 2000, double the record of expatriates, who turned out at a rate of 37 percent, according to the FVAP (though in both groups, the number of uncounted votes dropped those figures by at least 15 percent). Many expect even higher overseas military turnout this year. How many of those 500,000 active duty servicepeople will vote for Kerry, or Bush, is the question.
A survey of 4,000 servicepeople released last week by the Military Times, revealed strong loyalty to the president: 72 percent of those on active duty would vote for him, and 17 percent would vote for Kerry. In the view of military analyst Peter Feaver of Duke University, the early traction Kerry had with the troops has been lost by his recent hammering at the war as a “colossal mistake.” Being a decorated Vietnam veteran doesn’t improve Kerry’s stock with the “career military” people polled by the Military Times, either; in fact, two-thirds hold the senator’s long-ago antiwar activism against him.
The survey, however, concentrated on higher-ranking servicepeople, and is not representative of the rank and file. Along Heidelberg’s main street, off-duty soldiers, some fresh from combat in Iraq, divided evenly between rejecting Kerry because “he doesn’t support the troops” and supporting him “because a lot of us feel jerked around.” “People think the military is totally Republican, and that’s definitely not true,” says one strolling soldier, a burly 30-year-old from Florida. “There’s a lot of different views within the ranks.” Capt. Maxwell-Borges, the Stuttgart voting officer, agrees. “Surprisingly, it’s been really mixed,” she says. “A lot of people support Kerry because he’s a veteran and says he’s going to increase military spending, and others are the more traditional pro-Republicans. But I’ve been on bases in the past three elections and I have to say that this time [political views] seem a lot more varied.”
No one expects the soldier vote to swing to Kerry, but a softening of Bush’s overseas military support could be significant. “Even 100 percent military turnout overseas only equals 160,000 additional votes,” points out Brett Rierson, co-founder of the Democratic Hong Kong Web site. With activists guesstimating that the overseas civilian haul could be as high as 2 million, a strong showing for Kerry among enlisted troops could neutralize the Republican advantage.
In any event, it’s unlikely anyone will know until well after Nov. 2. Several states, in a scramble to accommodate overseas voters’ late ballots, have extended their deadlines. As it now stands, Florida, Washington, Iowa, Colorado and Illinois allow ballots to be received late, in some cases up to 10 days after Election Day. The Justice Department, at the prompting of the FVAP, has sued Pennsylvania to extend its deadline by two weeks as well.
Nor will Americans find out how effectively the overseas vote has been handled until “after the horses have left the barn,” says Joe Smallhoover, legal counsel for Democrats Abroad. Voting reform passed by Congress in 2002 requires states to track overseas ballots, at long last. But more to the point, Smallhoover says, “we have to do more than reform the FVAP; we have to reform the whole system.” Wright, the military voting expert, agrees. He advocates placing the whole overseas voting operation in the hands of the new Election Assistance Commission, a far better-funded agency created by the 2002 Help America Vote act that is supposed to help states improve their equipment and procedures.
All this, however, lies in the future. In the meantime, Democrats Abroad has formed a “rapid response” team to unsnarl problems voters abroad have encountered with their county election officials. Thousands of lawyers on both sides are renting office space in battleground states, ready to pounce on illegalities in stateside balloting and absentee votes. For now, overseas voters groping their empty mailboxes can only download the write-in ballot, send it in — in the faith that local election officials will accept it — and pray.
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