WASHINGTON – Department of Defense and U.S. Postal Service officials announced a "new initiative" Wednesday to expedite the receipt and return of absentee ballots for military personnel serving overseas.
The Postal Service's new Express Mail Service (search) aims to ensure that as many ballots as possible are returned to the United States in time for election tallying, officials said.
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Personnel and Readiness Charles Abell and United States Postal Service Vice President Paul Vogel told reporters that the new process would start with postmasters in every county in the United States approaching county officials to collect all absentee ballots (search) bound for military personnel overseas.
The postmasters will bind those ballots together and express mail them to three "gateways," which are defined by destination: San Francisco, for Asia and the Pacific Rim region; New York for Europe and the Middle East, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan, where the majority of troops are deployed; and Miami for Central and South America.
According to officials, managers at those destination centers will give the ballots first priority, loading them on to commercial and military transports for overseas delivery. The hope is that this occurs on the same day they're received at the centers
Upon touching down at or near their final destinations, military postmasters (search) will then be charged with giving the ballots first priority for shipment to bases or camps by the fastest means necessary. Once the ballots are filled out, they'll be returned using the same process in reverse.
The issue of ballots returning late from overseas military bases took on significance during the 2000 Florida recount (search), when both presidential camps placed some hopes on the ballots of Florida residents serving in the military overseas, some of which had not been returned and counted by Election Day.
The Defense Department pledged to improve the ballot process and has investigated several avenues, including Internet voting systems (search). Those proposals by and large went nowhere, even though the issue took on more prominence this year with so many servicemen and women deployed overseas in support of Operations Iraq Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Officials say they believe that transportation should take four days at most each way. Should ballots continue to drift in late in October, they say they'll further expedite their return to the United States.
Officials say they estimate crunch time will start around Oct. 30, though they hope all ballots will be on their way back to the states by as early as Oct. 11.
Fox News' Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.