On Monday, the International Herald Tribune reported that the Pentagon is restricting international access to the Web site for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the official government agency that helps Americans living abroad register to vote in the November election.
According to the IHT, Americans who connect to the Internet using one of several foreign Internet service providers have reported difficulty logging in to the voting-assistance site. The Pentagon confirmed that it is blocking traffic from these ISPs -- which provide Internet service in 25 countries -- but it declined to say why.
News of the Pentagon's traffic-blocking immediately aroused alarm and suspicion among voting-rights activists, and it's not hard to see why. For the 6 million Americans living abroad, signing up to vote at home is a daunting task, a Byzantine process that differs for each citizen depending on his or her home state and even home county.
Over the past year, the Federal Voting Assistance Program Web site has been widely advertised all over the foreign press as the way for Americans to get help on how to vote in the upcoming election. The site, which is maintained by the Department of Defense, is a nonpartisan, comprehensive, and official clearinghouse for voting registration information. Now that it's been put off-limits to many Americans just before registration deadlines kick in, activists fear that Americans will be unfairly barred from voting this year.
Why would the Pentagon do this? Officials at the Voting Assistance Program have told some Americans living abroad that the blocked ISPs were havens for "hack" attacks against the voting site; the Pentagon had no choice but to block them in order to keep the voting site secure from attack. But that explanation is extremely fishy, say critics who see something more nefarious at work. The Defense Department maintains all manner of sensitive Web sites -- for instance, MyPay, which allows military personnel to manage their compensation online -- and it's had no problem protecting those from hackers while keeping them open for legitimate uses.
"This is a completely partisan thing," one Defense Department voting official told Salon. The official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, is one of the many people in the department assigned to help both uniformed military personnel as well as American civilians register to vote. The offical described the Pentagon as extremely diligent in its efforts to register soldiers stationed overseas -- for instance, voting assistance officers have been told by the department to personally meet with all of the soldiers in their units in order to help them register. But the department has ignored its mandate to help overseas civilians who want to vote, the official said.
Not surprisingly, political pollsters believe that uniformed military personnel, especially military officers, lean toward Republicans in their voting habits; American civilians who live abroad, meanwhile, are particularly progressive. One recent Zogby survey, for example, showed that voters with passports supported Kerry over Bush by a margin of 55 to 33 percent.
The official -- a self-described Democrat who adheres to requirements of non-partisanship as a voting officer -- could see no explanation other than pure political trickery in the Pentagon's decision to block the FVAP Web site. "There is no way in hell that this is not a deliberate partisan attempt to systematically disenfranchise a large Democratic voting bloc," the official said.
It's easy to see why the Bush administration might be worried about the prospect of huge numbers of American civilians living abroad exercising their right to vote. In efforts to register Americans living overseas, the official has come across a host of people who say they're signing up specifically to hasten Bush's defeat. "I've had so many old people coming to register say, 'I haven't voted in such a long time,' or 'The last time I voted in an election was when Kennedy ran, but we've got to get rid of this man. This man makes me ashamed to be an American.'"
In order to help Americans living overseas to get around the Pentagon's block of the FVAP site, the Voter Verified Foundation has launched a proxy site here. Will Doherty, the executive director of Verified Voting, said he hoped that the proxy would pressure the Pentagon into dropping its access ban.