WASHINGTON - US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan can speak to their families by Web camera and fight insurgents using sophisticated electronic warfare. Yet when it comes to voting, most troops are stuck in the past.
Communities in 13 states will send overseas troops presidential election ballots by e-mail this year, and districts in at least seven states will also let them return completed ballots over the Internet, according to data compiled by the Associated Press and the Overseas Vote Foundation.
That still leaves tens of thousands of service members in far-flung military bases struggling to meet voting deadlines and relying largely on regular mail to get ballots and cast votes - often at the last minute because of delays in ballot preparations in some states.
Adding an electronic boost to the process would ease those problems, but it raises security and privacy concerns.
Pentagon officials have been urging more states to move into the electronic age before November, a move that could help reverse recent trends in which thousands of military members asked for ballots but either didn't vote or had their ballots rejected for flaws. The push comes more than seven years after problems with overseas military voting set off an uproar in President Bush's narrow 2000 victory. In Florida, where Bush squeaked out a 537-vote victory that gave him the presidency, questions were raised about several thousand overseas military votes that came in after deadlines and were counted in some districts but not counted in others.
This year, when war is a key campaign issue, the election results in any state - particularly one with heavy military voting - could turn on the votes of thousands of troops on the front lines.
"The personnel that fight our wars, the people who are most affected by the decisions on the use of the military, are being systematically denied the right to vote," said Bob Carey, a board member of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a voting rights group. "I find that pretty tough to swallow. If a president decides to deploy military troops somewhere, it's these troops that are going to go."
Carey, a Navy reservist who has served in Iraq, said ballots are often not prepared and ready to be mailed until 30 to 45 days before an election. And since it can take more than two weeks for troops to get ballots by regular mail, they sometimes get them too late to meet voting deadlines.
Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said the use of e-mail is a controversial subject among his members. Yet, he said his state has had no problems using e-mail to both deliver and receive ballots from overseas voters.
"The fact of the matter is, we're voting in the same way we were voting in the 1850s," Rokita said of many other states. While a number of states are looking at the e-mail process to speed up delivery of ballots to military voters, he said the issue "is tied up in the national debate on whether we need a paper trail. Some are so scared of technology, they want to be tied to a piece of paper."
In most states that allow e-mail balloting, the voter must follow up by mailing in the ballot. And states that permit e-mail balloting warn that it is not a secure way to transmit personal information.