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Military Mail Difficulties Persist

Times Staff Writer

A pair of recent federal reports critical of the military’s handling of overseas mail -- including the timely delivery of election ballots to troops stationed in Iraq -- could foreshadow potential problems in November’s presidential election, two U.S. lawmakers are warning.

A Government Accounting Office study released this month concluded that military officials had done little to remedy mail delivery problems that plagued Operation Desert Storm more than a decade ago. And a Department of Defense report in March on military accountability for delivery of election ballots determined that problems identified in 2000 and 2002 “continued to exist in 2003 for all the services.”

The reports have caused alarm on Capitol Hill, where a resolution is being drafted that calls for the Bush administration to take steps to ensure that troops in Iraq can participate in the 2004 presidential election.

“Mail delays can have a significant negative impact on troop morale,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). “Even more, not only will morale suffer, but the fundamental right to vote will continue to be undermined for the very people who are defending this country. With more soldiers overseas, more soldiers could see their votes go uncounted. That is simply unacceptable.”

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The military mail delays could have consequences in California, which is among the 29 states that require overseas ballots to be returned by mail, rather than fax. California elections officials say the state deadline to receive overseas ballots is 60 days after they are sent, a time frame they say will ensure that most ballots return on time.

Still, Camp Pendleton in Oceanside figured prominently in the new GAO report. Last June, 100,000 pounds of military mail was returned to the San Diego County base undelivered and unopened at a cost of more than $93,000.

The problems that can surround ballots sent from foreign countries were highlighted during Florida’s controversial recount in the 2000 presidential election. With the winner of the White House hanging on the outcome of the recount, various Florida counties adopted different criteria for accepting late ballots from troops and other U.S. citizens outside the country.

To the dismay of voter advocates, the Pentagon last month dropped a $22-million pilot plan to test Internet voting for 100,000 U.S. military personnel and civilians in foreign countries. The agency cited security concerns.

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That sparked criticism Monday from Sam Wright, military voting rights director for the National Defense Counsel, a nonprofit group that promotes a strong national defense, who said a close presidential election this November could spotlight the issue of tardy military absentee ballots.

“The only real solution is electronic voting,” Wright said. “It’s a scandal that in the 21st century we’re still doing absentee voting like they did during World War II, shipping papers around the world via snail mail.”

Yale University political scientist Donald P. Green said a nationwide court ruling would be necessary to make sure each state had the same deadline requirements for absentee balloting.

“Our system of government can withstand uncertainty and additional suspense; what it cannot withstand is a sense that the rules are changing while the game is going on,” said Green, coauthor of a new guide by the Brookings Institution think tank called “Get out the Vote.”

The military mail study by the GAO found that while more than 65 million pounds of mail was delivered to troops serving in Iraq, “problems with prompt and reliable mail delivery surfaced early in the conflict.”

The delays were caused by conducting joint mail operations between services, ill-trailed postal personnel and poorly run facilities, equipment and transportation, the report found.

More than 60% of military personnel interviewed for the study said they were dissatisfied with the mail service.

“Military mail was not given the priority it would need to operate smoothly,” said GAO analyst Neal Curtin. “The government didn’t anticipate the volume of letters, parcels and heavy packages.”

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In a letter sent Friday to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concern that some of the ballots sent to troops this fall would not be returned to the U.S. in time to be counted.

The Department of Defense, Forbes said in his letter, “must take swift action to address this matter.”

Using statistics gathered by Wright of the National Defense Counsel, Bond’s office estimated that 60% of the military personnel who voted absentee ended up casting ballots that were counted.

“Many applications are lost or rejected because they arrive after the state deadline,” according to a recent release by Bond’s office.

Quoting a June 2003 article from the Air Force Times, the release estimated that the amount of military mail backed up in the Iraq war zone “was enough to cover three football fields, stacked 10 feet high.”

“This is not a new issue,” Forbes said Monday. “The question we’re trying to get at is ‘why?’ ... We need an answer now, and we need a solution now.”

Although the U.S. Army’s wartime standard for mail delivery is 12 to 18 days from point of origin to service member, test mail sent by GAO analysts found that the trip sometimes took twice as long. The GAO report recommended that Rumsfeld “implement a new system to accurately track, calculate, and report postal transit times.”

In a March letter to Rumsfeld’s office, Bond warned that new technology must be acquired “in order to have a viable system up and running in sufficient time” to meet the needs of the November election.

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Bond said Monday: “The Pentagon needs to begin fixing the problem now, before it is too late.”


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