“Improved Absentee Balloting Processes Essential to the ‘Fix’”

Here is a guest post from Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President and CEO, U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote Foundation:

There is no single “fix” to create a more accessible and functional system that would transform the chaos that occurred on Election Day 2012. For too many, voting is a marathon event requiring perseverance and stamina, which often leads to low voter turnout. In this environment, it is hard to conceive of growing the American electorate without implementing new and innovative approaches to the voting process. One solution is a rigorous, reliable, high-integrity absentee balloting system. Indeed, this must be part of the improved foundation of our voting system across all states.

We saw absentee voting explode in popularity in the 2012 election, but it was still a fraction of what it could be to our growing electorate. Given this rise in demand, absentee balloting systems warrant dramatic investment.

The good news is the US already has a decent working absentee ballot model, as well as considerable policy and administrative experience concerning this voting method: the overseas and military absentee voting model. Decades of torturous policy implementation in the area of overseas and military voting have come to fruition in recent years. These groundbreaking policies have transformed the military and overseas voting experience and fostered technological improvements that are ripe for application in the domestic absentee balloting realm.

For example every state presently uses a single form that functions as a simultaneous voter registration and absentee ballot request for overseas and military voters. Why not implement this same type of standardized application as an alternative for simultaneous domestic voter registration and absentee ballot request across all states? Why do US domestic absentee voters have to fill out two forms, go through two application processes in order to get registered and receive an absentee ballot, while our overseas citizens and military voters can apply just once? Such a simple move would streamline the process dramatically for domestic voters and election administrators alike. This procedure should be adopted immediately. Further, the technology for enabling domestic voters to complete ballot request forms online also exists, is low cost, customizable and easily available.

Integral to the overseas and military absentee voting system is an emergency Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB) that is accepted as an absentee ballot across all states. Currently the official FWAB is available to any overseas or military voter whose expected absentee ballot doesn’t arrive. Fully half of the states accept the FWAB as a simultaneous voter registration, absentee ballot request, and voted ballot. This creates a one-step voting process that streamlines procedures. Voters need only go online to access the FWAB, and will even be presented with state-specific federal candidate lists.

This technology already exists for the military and overseas voter and it is essential that this option be made available to US domestic absentee voters as well. Indeed, many domestic absentee voters also may find themselves without the ballot they requested, or are too late to make their ballot request, often due to confusing or ambiguous administrative deadlines

Improvements are needed in absentee ballot application processes, tracking, delivery, and counting. There should be an end to a different application form for absentee ballot request in every state. And no state should be allowed to offer no form, as fourteen currently do, or to disallow computerized assistance to generate a letter of ballot request. Such hurdles to absentee voter participation must be removed.

We call for an immediate policy review of domestic absentee balloting at a federal level, streamlining of the application process, and cross-state availability of a standardized emergency ballot. In addition, we call for the elimination of the preposterous requirements for an “excuse” to vote absentee. It is a necessary option for many voters, not an “excuse” to voting.  For obvious reasons of cyber security, protection against wholesale fraud and ballot tampering, we specifically advocate for “Vote By Mail” absentee balloting as opposed to any form of online ballot return.

Presently, US voter participation is low when compared to other advanced democracies, reflecting an inadequate system with limited capacity. Expanding the use of absentee balloting is a solution to the capacity problems inherent in our voting system. We encourage a full embrace of ideas and consideration for this alternative.

Improving the absentee voting processes across all states would have an immediate impact on reducing the long lines at the polling place while making voting more accessible. For many voters it is their ONLY possibility to vote. It is not just the elderly or disabled that need an absentee voting alternative, but also hard working people who cannot leave their work to stand hours in line, parents without childcare, students who cannot afford that amount of time away from their studies, and people who travel in their jobs to name just a few examples.

Vote-By-Mail absentee balloting must be embraced, expanded and dramatically improved upon in order to achieve the total election fix we are seeking. It is completely within our reach to transform absentee balloting into a solid, reliable, convenient voting process that any human being (even those who are not training for a marathon) might enjoy.

Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President & CEO, U.S. and Overseas Vote Foundation

With collaboration and contributions from:
Dr. Claire Smith, Director of Research, U.S. and Overseas Vote Foundation
Dr. Judith Murray, Research Program Assistant, U.S. and Overseas Vote Foundation


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