U.S. overseas voting under review


WASHINGTON, Reuters

Defense Secretary William Cohen on Tuesday ordered the Pentagon to review procedures for handling U.S. military ballots overseas after hundreds were rejected over technicalities in Florida’s contested presidential tally.

Defense Department spokesperson Ken Bacon said the review by the Pentagon’s inspector general would not effect the outcome of the legal battle for the White House between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, who are fighting over the state’s 25 electoral votes, needed by both men to win.

Gore challenged Florida’s certification of Bush as the winner by fewer than 1,000 votes in the state where more than 1,500 overseas U.S. ballots — many of them military votes without postmarks — were rejected in tallies by county officials.

None of the pending court actions by Gore or Bush involve the overseas ballots but a Democratic attorney in Seminole County sought to have absentee ballots there disqualified on allegations that Republicans tampered with them.

Bacon said the review by the inspector general’s office was ordered by Cohen to make recommendations for possible improvements in the system — including insuring that future ballots carry official dates.

Defense officials said changes could also be made to eliminate technical problems such as lack of postmarks or witness signatures on votes that saw the high number of ballots rejected in Florida. Problems of past,

more obvious this year Large numbers of overseas ballots often run into such problems in many states at election time, but the Florida count this year highlighted the problem because of the razor-thin difference. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris proclaimed Bush the winner in Florida by 537 votes.

One problem with the system, Bacon told reporters, is that military ballots mailed from overseas are sent “postage free” and thus carry no stamps and cancellation dates on the envelopes indicating whether the ballot was mailed on time in compliance with state laws.

“The review will serve as a basis for any changes that can and should be implemented by the department in order to ensure that voting rights of all U.S. military personnel are respected,” Bacon told reporters.

It “would include, but not be limited to, current standard procedures for overseas handling of military ballots, standard cancellation and postmarking procedures, and any discrepancies between established procedures and how those procedures have actually been implemented,” he added.

“We, the Department of Defense, cannot instruct Florida how to interpret its own laws,” Bacon said in stressing that the review was not intended to challenge state laws but to check on handling ballots at overseas bases, aboard ships and in the field. Military regulations call for all overseas mail to be postmarked, but Bacon said postage-free items might not be considered mail.

“One of the things that the IG (inspector general) will look at is the clarity of the regulations,” the spokesman said. “Another layer that will have to be looked at is how ballots are treated once they are turned in.”