Voters abroad may face trouble

Millions of Americans abroad, including about 175,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, face chronic timing and technological problems if they try to vote in this fall's presidential election.

Troubles that caused low turnout in the past will be compounded by 11 late state-office primaries in September or October, which delays mailing absentee ballots. Efforts to expand electronic voting have slowed because of privacy concerns.

"It's going to be a harder year for our soldiers and military personnel and others who are overseas," Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

This week, FedEx Express and the private Overseas Vote Foundation unveiled an alternative that's speedier — and usually costlier for voters — than the snail-like pace of mailed ballots that has beset Americans abroad.

The delivery service can pick up ballots in 89 countries and return them within one to five days for discounted fees of up to $23.50. The service, run by each FedEx region and offered for free in Australia, New Zealand and 12 Asian countries, includes tracking capabilities and confirmation of receipt.

Voters also can use the foundation's website to register to vote and apply for a ballot — a process that can take weeks otherwise. "This is the first election where all those things are going to be available," said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the Overseas Vote Foundation.

In 2006, about 6 million Americans abroad, active-duty military members and their families were eligible to vote. Fewer than 1 million ballots were requested and about 330,000 cast or counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — a 5.5% turnout rate.

More than two-thirds of the ballots that were not counted were returned as undeliverable. More than 10% of would-be voters missed the deadline.

Jeff Burger, military mail specialist for the U.S. Postal Service, said most delays are caused by voters and county election offices. "The normal process would work fine if people were conscientious and did things in a timely manner," he said.

Efforts to speed up the process vary by state. Thirty-eight states can send blank ballots by fax, 18 by e-mail. Twenty-five can accept them back by fax, nine by e-mail, but that prevents a secret ballot.

Michael Caudell-Feagan, who directs a voting program for the Pew Center on the States, said electronic voting is the best long-term solution. Yet Election Assistance Commission chairwoman Rosemary Rodriguez said the FedEx program "might really change the numbers that we're getting."

That could help troops in combat zones. Army veteran Cara Hammer received her ballot in Tikrit, Iraq, the day before the 2004 election — too late to get it to Arizona in time. "If anyone had the right to have their voices heard, we felt it was us," she said.