Official Outlines Absentee Voting Options

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A digital "wizard" takes applicants through the process in about five minutes, allowing them to avoid the 390-page federal voting assistance guide, and provides a preprinted, stamped envelope for the application that must be signed and mailed back to the appropriate voting registrar, the program's Carey said.

Several states allow signed applications to be faxed or scanned, then emailed in, including Florida, where 14 counties used online ballot delivery for yesterday's presidential primary election. Some 800 service members downloaded ballots for the election, Carey noted.

Service members should update their address on the site every time they change duty stations and before deployment or upon their return, Carey said.

"The big thing is sending the ballot back," he emphasized, noting that delivery can encounter delays. "As soon as you get your ballot, try to send it back."

Most states allow registration very close to Election Day, which is Nov. 6 for federal offices. However, because most ballots are due back by the election, Carey recommended using a federal write-in absentee ballot, available on the website, for those who haven't received their postcard application within 45 days of the election.

The FVAP website includes deadlines for registration, state voting laws, sample ballots and absentee ballots for every state, Carey said.

"We've really expanded the online delivery systems by working closely with the states," he said. "We can reduce delays from 20 to 30 days to 20 to 30 milliseconds."

Several states, including California, are moving toward full online applications by automatically using driver's license signatures, he said.

Program officials are working to make voting easier for troops and civilians overseas, whether by working with states to improve voting laws, or by easing the process, Carey said.

"We have worked closely with all the states," he said, including sending letters about legislation affecting voting to every state. Carey has testified before legislatures in Minnesota, South Carolina, Texas and New York already this year.

"We will go wherever we need to, to get these laws changed so that the military and overseas voters can have adequate opportunities" to vote, he said.

The program's workers also are making practical improvements, including sending computer printers and ink cartridges to all combat outposts and forward operating bases to ensure an easy application process, Carey said.

And the efforts are paying off, he added. After sending 2.2 million emails about absentee voting in January, 60,000 postcard applications have been downloaded so far this year, compared to 90,000 in all of 2010, Carey said. The program also d sends out regular voting tips to people who "like" the Federal Voting Assistance Program's Facebook page, he said.

"We've really had a banner year this year in getting the word out, letting people know they have these opportunities and how to successfully use them," Carey said.

A Pew Center report issued last week shows substantial improvement for military and overseas voters, Carey said, concluding that this year will see substantially fewer registration and absentee voting problems than in the past.

Some problems the program has worked to alleviate include getting laws passed in every state requiring that absentee ballots be mailed out at least 45 days before an election and doing away with requirements that a notary public or a voter from the same state must witness an absentee vote, Carey said.

"The problem is, these are very complex election systems that develop over decades," he said. "It's not like we can change one small part without changing the rest."

But, he added, "that's what we do -- we work with these state legislatures to help them figure out how to do that."

Most importantly, Carey said, more service members are voting, with participation up 21 percent between 2006 and 2010, including a 33 percent rise in voting among 18- to 24-year-olds, who traditionally have the lowest voter turnout. In 2010, voting among military members was 46 percent, compared to 45.5 percent in the civilian population, he said.

"Everyone has a right not to vote," he said. "But if they want to vote, we want make sure they have every opportunity to vote."

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