(Dis)Counting Overseas Votes

The Pentagon has lifted an Internet blockade preventing many Americans overseas from registering to vote. Why now?

| Thu Sep. 23, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

We're continually being told that every vote counts, but if you're an American overseas, don't count on the U.S. government to protect your right to vote. On Monday, the International Herald Tribune reported that the Defense Department, citing hacking concerns, has been blocking its Federal Voting Assistance Program website -- the site that both overseas civilian and military voters use to register -- to users of, among other major Internet Service Providers (ISPs), British Telecom and France's Wanadoo.

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Following an uproar among Democrats, the Pentagon issued a rapid reversal of the Internet blockade on Wednesday. This was remarkable, not least because the block seems to have been in place for months, if not years. However, the Pentagon continues to refuse to explain why the blockade was in place in to begin with, and now claims it had been left in effect "inadvertently."

Given that the civilian overseas vote is predicted to go in Senator John Kerry's favor, Democrats were quick to cry foul, questioning the Defense Department's motives. It is estimated that there are around 6 million American civilians and 500,000 military troops overseas. According to a recent Zogby poll, Americans who hold a passport favor Kerry 58 percent compared to 35 percent who favor Bush, and requests for overseas ballot are way up this election. The military vote is considered to be overwhelmingly Republican and it is military, as well as civilian, overseas ballots that have been credited for Bush's narrow victory in Florida in 2000. With the memories of that voting debacle still fresh and an equally close election this year, overseas voters are receiving much more attention than usual. (See "Every (Offshore) Vote Counts")

After the International Herald Tribune broke the story, Kerry's sister, Diana, who is campaigning for him overseas, issued a statement declaring herself "outraged" at the Pentagon's "gross bureaucratic negligence and indifference to the rights of American voters. That the Pentagon ... has chosen to surrender to unspecified 'hackers' without firing a single shot in defense of American democracy is suspect." An unnamed Defense Department voting official was much more blunt in an interview with Salon.com: "There is no way in hell that this is not a deliberate partisan attempt to systematically disenfranchise a large Democratic voting block." Three Congressional Democrats sent the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a pointed letter demanding that the block be lifted.

The Pentagon at first pointed out that the practice of blocking ISPs is not uncommon, even users of a whole country (Brazil) have been previously blocked from accessing U.S. government sites due to concerns about hacking. Accusations of partisanship were dismissed as nonsense, as Republican and Democratic voters alike were affected.

Before the block was lifted, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke told CNET News.com that, "We're aware of the problem, and we're working on a solution…We hope to have a fix in place as soon as possible." However, the problem—which voting rights advocates say has affected users in at least 25 countries—was not a new one. Wanadoo gathers that it has been blocked for about 18 months. New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who complained to Rumsfeld, suggested that the block has been in place since the 2000 Presidential Election. Hong-Kong-based Democrat Brett Rierson, co-founder of OverseasVote.com, which links to the Federal Voting Assistance Program website, told the International Herald Tribune:

"We started receiving e-mails as we launched in February, but they were sporadic and there was no general pattern. As of Aug. 23, the numbers of e-mails per day have expanded drastically. Eighty percent of complaints have come from the past two weeks alone, and they come from countries that have the largest populations of overseas Americans."

The Democratic National Committee has sponsored the OverseasVote2004.com that allows users whose ISPs were blocked by the Pentagon to register and promises to have the process complete in 5 minutes. There are other websites as well, and voters can always request ballots from a U.S. Embassy. So while Pentagon's blockade did not amount to disenfranchisement, it did make the process frustrating for voters with the "wrong" ISP provider who made the logical choice of going to a government site to register to vote.

The case of the blocked ISPs is receiving extra scrutiny because of Pentagon's other problems with the overseas vote. Back in February, the Pentagon dropped a $22 million plan to test electronic voting for 100,000 military personnel and civilians overseas, citing hacking concerns. That was probably the right decision considering the numerous problems and uncertainties with electronic voting in the United States. More controversially, the Pentagon has allowed military personnel to e-mail or fax their ballots in states that allow that option, but only if they give up their right to a secret ballot. As Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project told the Reuters:

"You would have to be naive not to appreciate that there is a very real danger of manipulation and retaliation inherent in providing for waiver of the right to cast a secret ballot by people in the military. The military is the most authoritarian institution in American life. People are subject to a chain of command, they are under constant observation, and their every activity is directed and controlled by their superiors."

Neither has the fact that the chief executive of Omega Technologies—the company subcontracted by the Pentagon to collect these ballots—is a Republican donor has gone unnoticed. National Review's Jed Babbin branded criticism of the confidentiality waiver as nothing less than liberal attempts to deny our fighting men and women the right to vote. In fact, however, the Democrats have high hopes for picking up more than their usual share of the Republican-leaning military vote. The non-existent WMDs, continuing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, extended tours of duty, the calling up of the National Guard troops and retirees, and scrutiny of Bush's Guard days, may all mean gains for Kerry with this constituency.

The Pentagon has assured the public that it is taking steps to prevent a repeat of Florida, where some military ballots arrived late or lacked the correct postage. This time around, the U.S. Postal Service will airmail the ballots and that can only be a good thing. Every military vote should get to Florida, as well as all other states, on time and be properly counted. But the same goes for the civilian votes. One can't vote if one isn't registered, and the Pentagon shouldn't be making that task more complicated for overseas voters than it already is. British Telecom and Wanadoo are not obscure internet providers. The Pentagon clearly was long aware of the hacking attempts or if its latest explanation is the more accurate one, shouldn't have "inadvertently" forgotten to lift the ban on these providers. One doesn't have to be a bleeding heart liberal to recognize that there is something terribly wrong with American voters being blocked from accessing their own government's Federal Voting Assistance Program website. The Pentagon was right to reverse its internet blockade, but that still leaves the question of why it has taken it just a few weeks before the voter registration deadlines to do so.

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