Few overseas residents vote in ‘08 Alabama general election

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Though they had plenty at stake in the Nov. 4 presidential election, very few service members living abroad were among the 2.1 million Alabama residents who cast ballots.

A total of 5,743 Alabama citizens overseas voted by absentee ballot, including military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, according to a report released Tuesday by the Secretary of State’s office.

The overseas voters accounted for less than one-half of 1 percent of the votes cast in Alabama. Only about 6 percent of Alabama residents living elsewhere voted.

Secretary of State Beth Chapman, who filed the report with the U.S. Justice Department, said she was sad when she saw how few overseas ballots were cast. She said the U.S. Defense Department estimated there are about 100,000 Alabama residents living overseas, including service members, who would have been eligible to vote.

“There are so many people serving our country that obviously could not vote or did not know they could vote. It may well be that people tried and just couldn’t make it on time,” Chapman said. She said she believes the majority of the votes cast were from service members.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit last month accusing the state of failing to file reports on overseas voting for the 2004 and 2006 elections and seeking to compel the state to file a report on overseas voting for the Nov. 4 election. Chapman said she does not have the records on overseas voting for the 2004 and 2006 elections, which occurred before she took office, but wanted to file the report for 2008 as early as possible to show the Justice Department her intent to comply with the law.

Former Secretary of State Nancy Worley, who was in office in 2004 and 2006, said she filed a report with the Justice Department for the 2004 election. She provided The Associated Press with a copy of a report dated Jan. 21, 2005, which she said was sent to the Justice Department and to the United States Election Assistance Commission. The report showed a total of 4,180 overseas ballots were counted in 2004.

Worley said staff members in the secretary of state’s office were working on compiling the 2006 figures when she left office in January 2007.

Chapman said neither she nor members of her staff have seen the 2004 report or figures from 2006.

Chapman said federal law requires the report on overseas voting to be filed within 90 days and she believes Alabama is one of the first states to file it this year.

The report shows that 8,856 overseas residents requested absentee ballots and 5,987 returned them. Of those, 5,743 were actually cast and counted. She said some ballots were not counted because they were not properly witnessed, were not filled out correctly or arrived too late to be counted.

Chapman hopes the low numbers will help encourage the Legislature to pass a bill that would set up a system for military personnel to vote over the Internet. An Internet voting bill proposed by Chapman died in the Legislature this year, with some lawmakers skeptical that a system could be devised to protect the secrecy of the votes.

Colbert County Probate Judge Tommy Crosslin spent a year in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 as a warrant officer in the Alabama Army National Guard’s 115th Signal Battalion. Crosslin was the unit’s voting officer and said he witnessed the difficulty service members face in trying to vote, particularly when they are deployed in a combat zone.

“First of all voting is not the number one item of concern in Iraq,” Crosslin said.

Soldiers are more concerned with doing their jobs, he said, and most personnel in his unit in their early 20s were more comfortable using computers than filling out forms.

Crosslin has worked with the state Probate Judges Association to push for legislation to allow some form of electronic voting.

Currently military personnel send their applications for ballots and the actual ballots in by regular mail, which Crosslin said is often slow, particularly when a unit is in combat.

“There is a problem with the snail mail,” Crosslin said. He said it took 10 to 15 days to get mail from Iraq to Alabama.