Published November 24. 2009 4:00AM Updated November 24. 2009 7:13AM
Groton - Sonar Chief Art Harley mailed his request for an absentee ballot to vote in the presidential election before he deployed for six months in the summer of 2008.
He received his ballot when the Groton-based submarine USS Pittsburgh (SSN 720) stopped in Tunisia- around Inauguration Day.
One in four absentee ballots requested by U.S. military personnel deployed overseas were not counted in the 2008 election because election officials did not receive them in the mail in time or rejected them for such problems as a missing signature or failure to notarize, a congressional study found.
But the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, recently signed by President Barack Obama, now allows military and overseas voters to electronically request and receive an absentee ballot. Most states still require the overseas voter to print out the ballot and mail it back because of concerns about fraud.
Either way, the process will take about half the time.
"Anything you can do to make it easier for access, that's huge," Harley said. "It's good for sailors no matter where they are - in Iraq, on a ship at sea or a submarine on deployment."
Receiving mail on a submarine is "hit or miss," Harley said, because it is tricky to coordinate forwarding mail to a port in advance of the submarine's arrival. Harley said his reaction to receiving the late ballot was "too little, too late."
"You miss birthdays, holidays. It's just another thing to miss. It's not the first election I've missed, not at all," said Harley, who retires today after more than 23 years in the Navy. "I've probably only voted in two since I've been in the Navy, maybe three."
The Pew Center on the States released a report in January that found 25 states, including Connecticut as well as the District of Columbia, do not provide enough time for overseas service members to vote and have their ballots counted.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, visited Connecticut service members in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain shortly after the presidential election. In southern Afghanistan, he met three Army soldiers from Connecticut who all tried and failed to get ballots in on time.
"We had this paper-only system that relied on military mail, which is a challenged process given the fact that you have to not only just transport mail from one continent to another but also transport it in a combat area," Courtney said Monday. "One of them described to me the experience of opening his package from the secretary of the state's office the day after the election."
About 150 soldiers from the Connecticut National Guard's 1109th Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot in Groton were repairing and maintaining aviation equipment at bases in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2008 presidential election. Col. Thomas E. Boland, who commanded the unit, said that as far as he knew, all of the soldiers who wanted to vote were able to do so.
"Our soldiers had every opportunity to participate but an electronic option would have been beneficial," said Boland, who is now the director of logistics for the Connecticut Army National Guard.
Mail typically reached soldiers in Kuwait and Iraq in about a week, Boland said, but mail to and from Afghanistan can take a couple of weeks.
"I know that soldiers in our unit took the privilege and right of voting very seriously," he said. "It carries a lot of weight for a soldier over there, with the flag on their right shoulder. Anything that can be done to better guarantee that right is a great thing."
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Courtney, and Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz held a press conference at the U.S. Submarine Veterans Club Monday to publicize the changes to the voting process.
It often takes about two months for a service member to receive an absentee ballot overseas and send it back to the states to be counted, Bysiewicz said. The MOVE Act will make it "much easier for our service people to vote and for elections officials to process the ballots," she said.
"It's the irony of ironies that the men and women who serve in uniform to protect our democracy find it difficult to actually participate in democracy," Dodd said, "and that's the opposite of how it should be, obviously. This bill was designed to change that."