After suffering a day of relentless criticism from voting-rights activists, bloggers and lawmakers, the Pentagon decided on Wednesday afternoon to lift the access block it had earlier placed on the Web site for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the government agency charged with helping Americans living abroad register to vote.
"The department has taken prompt action to address the concerns of some U.S. citizens overseas regarding the protective measures on DoD networks that were limiting some Internet access," Charles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a statement. Abell gave no reason for why the block had been instituted in the first place, but unnamed officials told the International Herald Tribune that the policy was due to "an Internet security block imposed several years ago had been left in place inadvertently" and was not a partisan plan meant to disenfranchise liberal expatriates, as some critics had charged.
Brett Rierson, the owner of the nonpartisan voting-assistance site overseasvote.com, discounted that explanation. In an interview from his home in Hong Kong, Rierson told Salon that American expatriates only recently began complaining in high numbers about being locked out of the government's voting registration site. The problem could not have been caused by a block accidentally imposed several years ago, Rierson said, because for much of this year voters from around the world experienced no problem logging into the site. Then, for some unexplained reason, "something changed at the Pentagon" at the end of August, Rierson said, and Americans in about 27 different countries could no longer get in to the Pentagon's voting site.
Perhaps we'll never know what prompted the Defense Department to shut down access to its voting site. But now that it has lifted its block, Rierson hopes that Americans living abroad will immediately go online and register to vote. Already this year, he says, at least 47,000 people have downloaded registration forms from overseasvote.com. And tens of thousands more have acquired forms from the many other assitance sites online, including TellAnAmericanToVote.com and OverseasVote2004.com, which is funded by the Democratic party and is not affiliated with Rierson's site.
"I really believe that these are the silent swing voters," Rierson said of the Americans living abroad. "And, let me say something: If there's one thing you could do for us -- we're really hoping for MoveOn, ACT, Emily's List, all these third-party groups to get the message out to their base, to tell people to get in touch with their overseas friends and get them to vote." Voting registration deadlines for expatriates are fast approaching, he explained. "This idea has another two weeks of shelf life -- then it's dead."