An assist for absentee voters

Imagine being a soldier fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq so that citizens there have the right to vote, but not being able to vote yourself. This is a reality for many in our nation's armed services.

Fortunately, Maryland now has a new way to make sure its citizens who are serving overseas in the military and the diplomatic corps — or who are away on business or at college — can exercise their precious right to vote. Along with senior citizens and the disabled, these groups often experience great difficulty voting because of the challenges in getting to their polling place.

What's changed is the state's system for handling absentee ballots: It is among the first in the nation to distribute these via the Internet. We hope it will serve as a model for other states.

Until now, absentee ballots were sent in the mail. Too often, they never reached voters in time, if at all. The Internet-based absentee ballot delivery system promises to return the vote to citizens who have faced these difficulties in the past.

The On-Demand Ballot System, developed by the University of Maryland's Center for American Politics and Citizenship (which I direct), in partnership with the Maryland State Board of Elections, is an automated Internet-based ballot delivery system that got its first trial run in last month's primary and is now in operation for next month's general election.

To use the system, a voter begins by requesting a ballot from the State Board of Elections — either by e-mail, U.S. mail, fax or in person. The Board of Elections responds by e-mailing the voter a unique tracking number that, along with the voter's name, ZIP Code and date of birth, makes it possible to log into the ballot system online. There, the voter can print his or her official ballot and personalized oath document, along with a pre-addressed envelope. Finally, the voter fills out the ballot, signs the accompanying oath, and sends it all back via U.S. mail to his or her county (or Baltimore City) board of elections.

Voters can access this online system through the Maryland Elections Center website, which also was developed by the Center for American Politics and Citizenship in conjunction with the State Board of Elections. It provides a wide range of election services, including a voter's registration status and polling place location. You can access the website at http://www.mdelections.umd.edu.

The new ballot delivery system represents an important step in election administration. It greatly increases the likelihood a voter will receive an absentee ballot in time to vote. Available for use by any Maryland registered voter, the new system has the potential to eliminate one of the major obstacles to voting: getting to the polls. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, almost one third of all registered nonvoters blamed their lack of participation in the 2008 elections on difficulties they encountered getting to their polling place.

The new system should be especially beneficial to uniformed and overseas citizen absentee voters and college students away at school. Members of these groups encounter particularly high hurdles when trying to vote, because they're away from home so often.

Many students attending college away from home often do not know about absentee ballots or how to get them. Many military or overseas voters find timely mail service particularly challenging. What happens if a member of the military gets deployed at the last minute, and the mail takes a long time to catch up? The result is that soldiers cast votes that simply don't count. The irony in that is painful. The On-Demand Ballot System's use of the Internet to deliver ballots opens a new realm of possibilities for all Maryland citizens.

Although the new system is in its pilot phase and has not been widely advertised, results from Maryland's primary election suggest that it works smoothly and offers real benefits. Many of the early beneficiaries of this system belong to the populations it was primarily intended to serve.

During the first 11 days of absentee voting for the general election, more than 2,500 people logged in to retrieve their ballots. We expect this number to grow as the election nears, but we won't be sure how many Marylanders used the new system until their votes are counted next month.

Given the high profile of the upcoming gubernatorial contest between former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Gov. Martin O'Malley, the number of voters using the system is expected to be substantial. All this should be good practice for the 2012 presidential contests. By then, we hope some other states may give the system a try.

Paul S. Herrnson, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, directs the school's Center for American Politics and Citizenship (www.capc.umd.edu). His e-mail is pherrnson@capc.umd.edu.

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