LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. A summit in Washington tomorrow will focus on how to make voting easier this election season for members of the military and other Americans overseas. First, we want to talk about the military. Bob Carey is a captain in the Navy Reserves. He's also a senior fellow at the National Defense Committee which works to protect voting rights for members of the military. In 2004 Carey got notice that he would be sent to the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain just three weeks before the presidential election. Carey says he wanted to vote, but at that point it was too late to request and receive an absentee ballot.
Captain ROBERT CAREY (Navy Reserves; Senior Fellow, National Defense Committee): Real quick, first, although I am a captain in the Navy Reserves, none of my - none of what I'm saying here today is necessarily the opinion of the Department of Defense or the Department of Navy, although I believe it should be. What happened to me is that, you know, we all sign on in the reserves to know that we may very well get called up on a moment's notice. The problem is is that our voting system that the military has devised in order to be able to support military voters doesn't support that type of rapid movement. And so, I was living in New York City at that time and it wasn't possible for me to be able to get the absentee ballot shipped to me and then get it back before the election, because I was having a number of intermediate duty stations before going overseas, and it just wasn't going to happen.
And then when I got back - when I was coming back a year later, I got extended on my mobilization by about a month and a half, and this was just before the 2005 mayoral election in New York City. And again, it was too late. By the time I found out, it was too late for me to be able to receive a postal mail version of the absentee ballot in order to be able to get it back in time. And it started to get me to think, you know, aren't there electronic versions - alternatives to this that we might be able to look at? And that's how I became involved in this issue.
HANSEN: So, Americans living in the United States, if they requested an absentee ballot three weeks before an election, they could have voted?
Captain CAREY: Oh, easily, easily. They would have probably gotten it. And the average amount of time it takes for mail to be delivered is three to six days. They'd get it back easily.
HANSEN: Some states don't consider how slowly mail travels to and from combat zones. So the extra time it takes for troops overseas to request and return absentee ballots means many votes may never get counted. Michael Caudell-Feagan is an election analyst at the Pew Center on the States, a non-profit research organization.
Mr. MICHAEL CAUDELL-FEAGAN (Election Analyst, Pew Center on the States): Well, you can take a look at a state like Massachusetts or Rhode Island. They don't complete their ballots and get them in the mail until 21 days before the election. If you talk with the military postal service and look at their directives, it takes 13 to 18 days just to transmit mail one way to any of the theatres of operation: Iraq, Afghanistan, any place where our troops are in harm's way. So, by definition you can't get the ballot and get it returned in time.
HANSEN: Caudell-Feagan says members of the military aren't the only voters living abroad who risk getting disenfranchised. An estimated six million Americans live overseas. These Americans not only have to deal with sluggish mail service, they have to navigate a maze of confusing state laws to figure out how to register or how to cast an absentee ballot. Some states allow voters to return ballots by fax or email, while others require signed affidavits or notarized ballots. Inconsistent voting rules across the country prompted a group of state-appointed lawyers to look into the possibility of a uniform election law for all states. Caudell-Feagan says such a law could bring several reforms. Among them...
Mr. CAUDALL-FEAGAN: Getting rid of the notary and affidavit requirements, allowing fax and email transmission of ballots, extending the amount of time by which ballots going by mail can get from the election office to the voter and back again by getting ballots out earlier and by giving a grace period after an election cycle in recognition of the delays that we sometimes have in getting ballots returned. All those are things that those who have been looking at this area and this problem for decades have identified as areas that need to be improved.
HANSEN: Do you get the sense that people are more concerned about voting in this year's election?
Mr. CAUDALL-FEAGAN: Well, there's no doubt from the primary turnout, from the number of registration forms that are flooding election offices, interest in the election, especially the presidential race, is at a height that we have not seen in decades.
HANSEN: Caudall-Feagan says some businesses and nonprofits have come up with creative ways to simplify voting for Americans living abroad. One group, the Overseas Vote Foundation, has designed a Web site that offers a step-by-step guide on how to register and request an absentee ballot. Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the Overseas Vote Foundation, says that without the Web site, voters would have to pour through a federal guidebook that's almost 500 pages long.
Ms. SUSAN DZIEDUSZYCKA-SUINAT (President, Overseas Vote Foundation): As you know, the system for overseas and military voter registration is a little bit complex because it's different in every state and territory, or it can be. So, we simplify that by actually walking them through the questions that they need to answer for their state only. At the end, they print out the completed application form, and along with it comes a letter of instructions and the mailing address to their particular voting jurisdiction where the application has to go.
HANSEN: Navy Reserve Captain Bob Carey says tools like the Web site are only a partial solution, and that the states and the federal government need to do more.
Captain CAREY: In 2006, 85 percent of the general population that requested an absentee ballot were able to actually cast it. For the military, only 26 percent of those who requested an absentee ballot actually were able to get the chance to cast it. And you know, so that represents basically about 300,000 military personnel that requested an absentee ballot and didn't get the opportunity to cast it.
HANSEN: How do you think it could be made easier for members of the military to vote?
Captain CAREY: Well, the first is to make the laws uniform. That's the first step. Second is to introduce some type of electronic methods to the voting system. At the very least, sending the blank ballots to the military personnel and overseas voters by email seems to be a no-brainer, as we say in the military. It's not like that's going to increase the chance for fraud because the ballot is still signed, and the hard copy is still sent back in to the local election official, and they still - they still check that signature against the voting rolls. So, it's not like you're going to be able to use that in order to be able to commit massive voter fraud. That at the very least would cut two to three weeks of mail transit time off the front end of that ballot transit process. Ultimately, I think we need to be looking at some type of Internet voting.
HANSEN: Is it your experience that members of the military - they really want to get involved in these elections?
Captain CAREY: Very much so. In fact, in 2004 the Federal Voting Assistance Program found that about 75 percent of military personnel desired a great interest in voting.
HANSEN: And how many of those were able to vote?
Captain CAREY: In - the best figures we have are probably from 2006, and only about 22 percent were able to vote.
HANSEN: What did it feel like for you not to be able to vote in the presidential election in 2004?
Captain CAREY: Considering how important that election was, I felt like it was a breach of trust. I took an oath as a member of the Reserves to uphold and defend the Constitution of United States, and I was denied the opportunity to be able to vote on who the leaders of my military organization would be.
HANSEN: That's frustrating.
Captain CAREY: It's very frustrating.
HANSEN: Bob Carey is a captain in the Navy Reserves and a senior fellow at the National Defense Committee. We also spoke to Michael Caudell-Feagan, an election analyst at the Pew Center on the States, and Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the Overseas Vote Foundation. To give us your views on voting rights and to continue this conversation, go to npr.org/soapbox. You'll also see on our blog a posting from our blogger Jacob Soboroff on a new voter registration drive he's participating in, getting every U.S. college student to register and vote in the 2008 election.
JACOB SOBOROFF: Here's the best part. The school that registers the most new voters will get a free concert from Death Cab For Cutie, and the individuals who get the most friends to register to vote will win thousands of dollars in scholarships, "Guitar Hero II" setups, and more.