AUSTIN (AP) – Usually, a 2 percent response rate is not considered a success, but it is for a Texas pilot program that allows soldiers in combat zones to cast ballots via email.
State lawmakers passed a bill in 2013 directing the secretary of state to allow one county in Texas to allow soldiers in hostile fire zones to cast email ballots.
Then-Secretary of State John Steen chose Bexar County, home of San Antonio and the 50,000 enlisted military members of Joint Base San Antonio, to be the first for the program.
The office of current Secretary of State Carlos Cascos said that 365 ballots were emailed to soldiers overseas for the November general election. Eight voters, who had to sign affidavits stating they were in a hostile fire zone, emailed the ballots back, said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen. The number was nearly three times as many as were cast in the March primary, when three ballots out of the 22 sent overseas were returned via email.
“I consider it a huge success,” Callanen said in a recent interview at the Texas Capitol, where she was testifying for a bill that would expand the pilot program to two military-rich counties.
For years, Texas soldiers stationed overseas have been able to request a ballot electronically, but then must print them out, complete their votes and send them in via regular mail, which can take weeks.
In 2009, Congress passed a law that enabled states to experiment with emerging technology and initiate pilot programs. Some 18 states now allow military voters to submit absentee ballots through email, Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said.
Five other states allow state ballots to be returned via email in certain circumstances, Christensen said. Iowa and Missouri permit soldiers in hostile fire zones to send ballots in electronically. Louisiana and Nebraska allow soldiers to return ballots via email if their ballots otherwise would not reach state officials in time to be counted. Idaho allows email voting in certain emergency situations designated by the secretary of state.
Seven states are currently considering electronic transmission of voted ballots, according to the National Council on State Legislators. In Texas, some hope to expand the pilot program to allow more military voters stationed abroad to cast their ballots online.
A proposal by New Braunfels Republican Sen. Donna Campbell would direct the secretary of state to add other counties to the pilot program and extend it until January 2017.
Campbell didn’t specify which counties she hopes are added, but Callanen and others anticipate that the program will be opened up to about 70,000 enlisted military in Bell County, home of Fort Hood, and El Paso County, home of Fort Bliss.
“We should go the extra mile to ensure that the very men and women serving overseas to defend our freedoms have the right to vote and that we are not putting obstacles in their path to participate in the democratic process,” Campbell said in a statement.
And according to a survey conducted by Callanen after the November election, there are plenty of obstacles. Voters who received emailed ballots but had to send them in complained about the cumbersome process, which insists voters use at least two separate envelopes to mail in their ballots.
Others noted issues with formatting and printing. Some worried that their ballots wouldn’t be counted. Many who had to mail in ballots questioned why they couldn’t email their ballots back.
One respondent, stationed in Afghanistan, said the process to email back the ballot was “as simple and easy as you can make it.” The respondent commended Callanen’s office for supporting its troops.
“There is a reason the military loves Texas,” the survey respondent said.
Morgan Little, a veteran who chairs the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, testified alongside Callanen in favor of Campbell’s bill.
“We know that the pilot programs work and do well for us, but we don’t have incredibly good participation,” he said in the Thursday committee hearing. “This would address that.”
Although the committee didn’t vote on Campbell’s bill, Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, the panel’s chair, told Campbell that her bill was in “really good shape.”
Huffman added that the committee is “in support of what you’re trying to do,” and she said Campbell should have “no problem” passing the bill to the Senate floor. It would then have to be approved by the full Senate, the House and Gov. Greg Abbott.
The proposal would allow more soldiers in combat zones to cast email ballots for the 2016 presidential election. Callanen said she eventually would like to enable all Texas military members stationed overseas to vote by email.Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.