Voting experts are expecting a huge wave of military absentee ballots this year. The 184,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have a lot at stake in the vote to choose their next commander-in-chief.
The mechanics of military voting are better than they used to be. But "better" doesn't always cut it for troops in war zones.
Teresa Purcell got a call from her husband nine days before Election Day. "You're not going to believe this," he said, "we're not going to be allowed to vote for president of the United States because we're not getting the ballots."
Robert Purcell was calling from Afghanistan, where he's serving with the New York National Guard.
He told his wife his troops got ballots, but that they were the wrong ones.
"He said, 'They gave us the ballots for the local Puerto Rico election,'" Teresa recalls.
It's not clear what happened, or whether the snafu can be fixed in time for his 13 troops to meet New York's deadline.
But his phone call — coming from a true battleground on the eve of the U.S. election — illustrates the many glitches in military voting.
'Almost An Afterthought'
"You would think if anybody's vote ought to count first, it would be those who are deployed defending our freedom and fighting for our country," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) says. "But yet they seem to be almost an afterthought."
Cornyn sponsored a bill to deal with some of the glitches. The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but the House didn't take it up in time for this election.
"There shouldn't be this many opportunities for failure along the way," Cornyn says.
The fate of a ballot can be tricky, with thousands of local election officials interpreting their state's laws. And even in the 21st century, military voting still relies largely on little pieces of paper flying back and forth — between two postal services, civilian and military.
"The absentee voting system was built around the idea we're going to be sending ballots around the corner — not around the world," says Bob Carey, senior fellow at the National Defense Committee. The committee works to protect voting rights for people in the military. Carey is also on the board of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonpartisan group that uses technology to make military voting easier.
Some states have made it easier to vote from overseas by using e-mail or fax.
The military has made strides, too, says Les Melnyk, a spokesman for the Pentagon. He says the military has given ballots top mail priority. For the first time, the military postal service is giving troops a bar code to track their ballots once they reach the U.S.
"We are doing everything we can to expedite delivery of ballots and the return of ballots," Melnyk says.
Deborah Gatrell, who is based in Kuwait and Iraq with the Utah National Guard, is one of the military's voting assistance officers. She calls the system frustrating, but mostly workable.
"Some soldiers are still waiting, but most people have gotten their ballots," she says.
She says the biggest voting risk is for the thousands of troops on the move in Iraq and Afghanistan during election season. If they didn't get their regular ballots before they moved, and they didn't file a federal write-in absentee ballot, they can't vote.
For now, Carey's group is focused on getting military votes that do get cast to be counted. He says a lot of local officials aren't used to seeing federal write-in absentee ballots.
"So we're really concerned they're not going to understand how the military will be sending these in and they may very well reject them unwarrantedly," he says.
Carey met recently with a group of lawyers and volunteers who will monitor military absentee votes in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia. They hope to convince election officials not to reject any military ballots.
Teresa Purcell says she just wants her husband and his troops to be able to cast a ballot.
"Honestly, I feel it should not be this difficult," she says. "They're out there defending our right ... that we're exercising next Tuesday. And instead, I feel like we're allowing them to feel disenfranchised from the country that they love and that they're fighting for."
She says it just doesn't make sense.