Some Military Votes May Not Be Counted "You're not going to believe this," a soldier told his wife, "we're not going to be allowed to vote for president." The mechanics of military voting are better than they used to be, but "better" doesn't always cut it in a war zone.
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Some Military Votes May Not Be Counted

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Some Military Votes May Not Be Counted

Some Military Votes May Not Be Counted

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Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. There's been a deluge of early voting this year. In Colorado, for example, more than half of all registered voters have already cast their ballots.

And the wave of interest washes far beyond U.S. shores. Take the military. Voting experts think American troops will send in a huge number of absentee ballots. The mechanics of military voting are far better than they used to be. But as NPR's Libby Lewis reports, better doesn't always cut it for the hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world.

LIBBY LEWIS: Teresa Purcell (ph) got a call from her husband nine days before election day. He said...

Ms. TERESA PURCELL: You're not going to believe this. We're not going to be allowed to vote for president of the United States because we're not getting the ballots.

LEWIS: Robert Purcell (ph) was calling from Afghanistan, where he's serving with the New York National Guard. He told her his troops did get ballots to vote, but they were the wrong ones.

Ms. PURCELL: He said, they gave us the ballots for the local Puerto Rico election.

LEWIS: 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. The fate of a ballot can be tricky, with thousands of local-election officials interpreting their state's laws. And 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.

Mr. BOB CAREY (Senior Fellow, National Defense Committee): The absentee balloting system, the absentee voting system was built around the idea that we're going to be sending ballots around the corner, not around the world.

LEWIS: Bob Carey is a senior fellow at the National Defense Committee. It protects voting rights for people in the military. He's also on the board of directors of the Overseas Vote Foundation, that's a nonpartisan group that uses technology to make military voting easier. Some states have also made it easier to vote from overseas using email or fax.

The military has made strides, too. Les Melnyk is a spokesman for the Pentagon. He says they've 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 states.

Lt. Colonel LES MELNYK (Spokesman, Pentagon): We are doing everything we can to expedite delivery of ballots and return of ballots.

Ms. DEBORAH GATRELL (Soldier, Utah National Guard): Some soldiers are still waiting, but most people have gotten their ballot.

LEWIS: Deborah Gatrell is based in Kuwait and Iraq with the Utah National Guard. She's also one of the military's voting assistance officers. She calls the system frustrating but mostly workable. In a follow up email, Gatrell said 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, Bob 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.

Mr. CAREY: And so, we're really concerned they're not going to understand how the military, you know, will be sending these in, and they may very well reject them unwarrantedly.

LEWIS: This week, Carey met 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.

Ms. PURCELL: I mean, honestly, I feel it should not be this difficult. I mean, we live in the 21st century, and men serving our country should be permitted the right to vote and given the proper means to do so. They're out there defending our right that we're exercising 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.

LEWIS: She says it just doesn't make sense. Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

SEABROOK: If you have problems at the ballot box on Tuesday, broken machines or long waits, let us know. You can contact us by text message, voice mail, twitter or even a special iPhone application. To learn more, go to

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