WASHINGTON – Thousands of votes from U.S. troops overseas could go uncounted again in November without emergency legislation extending deadlines for the ballots, a Chicago election official warned President Bush in a letter Tuesday.
Nearly 30 percent of military voters who requested ballots in 2000 didn't get them in time to vote. Theresa M. Petrone (search), a Democratic member of Chicago's three-person Board of Election Commissioners (search), told Bush the problem could be solved if he proposed emergency legislation giving election officials up to 14 days after Election Day to collect and count ballots.
Deadlines vary, but most states, including Illinois, require that ballots be received by Election Day. Other states, including Ohio and Florida, count them for up to 10 or more days later, as long as they were signed by Election Day.
"Every election cycle, election authorities such as Chicago receive military absentee ballots days or even weeks after the deadline, thus disqualifying these votes from being included in the election tally," Petrone wrote. "With hundreds of thousands of military personnel serving overseas, the voting bloc obviously could determine the outcome of our next presidential election."
A White House spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment. Congressional leaders have opposed amending the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and such emergency legislation is unlikely before November.
The handling of military ballots was a major issue in the ballot recount in Florida in 2000 that led to Bush's victory, when election officials rejected hundreds of military absentee ballots, many because they lacked postmarks or signatures.
With many more troops overseas now because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military voting could be an even bigger issue this year. Some 250,000 absentee ballot request forms were sent to military personnel overseas who asked for them in 2000, while 340,000 already had been sent as of mid-July for the Nov. 2 election, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Richard.
Critics have accused the Pentagon of doing little to improve systems for getting ballots to and from servicemembers. A report by the Defense Department's inspector general in April said problems hadn't been fixed, and a required study by a new voting commission on getting ballots to military and other overseas voters is overdue.
Still, Richard said the military is working to raise awareness among troops and improve methods by the U.S. Postal Service.
"I can only tell you that the secretary of defense and senior leadership of the Defense Department, certainly all the services, have made a concentrated effort to ensure that some of the difficulties that were experienced in 2000, primarily with delivery of ballots, will not recur," he said.