Lawmakers Want Outside Applicants in Hunt for Job Helping U.S. Voters Overseas

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A bipartisan group of legislators and advocates for the military and Americans overseas are urging Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to expand the search for a new director for the troubled Pentagon office that helps those citizens vote by absentee ballot.

"The status quo is simply unacceptable," the legislators wrote to Gates, urging that outside applicants be considered to head the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Several advocacy groups are preparing a similar letter to Gates.

The program serves about 6 million military personnel and overseas citizens and has been criticized in government audits and congressional hearings, and by private organizations, for not eliminating hurdles to getting and returning ballots.

For the 2004 elections, for example, the voting assistance office spent about $26 million to test online registration and voting, but the program was shut down because of concerns about the security of voter information. The office could not provide details about what it received for that money, the Government Accountability Office said.

Another site to help military voters register and receive ballots was supposed to be ready by the end of 2007 but did not launch until August 2008.

The Defense Department is seeking internal applicants who are senior government executives to replace Pauline K. Brunelli, head of the voting office since 1999. Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Les A. Melnyk said the search will expand to outside applicants if a suitable candidate is not found. Melnyk said he had no information about Brunelli's departure date or next job.

Promoting from within "would be a disservice to our military voters" when there is a need for "fresh approaches and innovative technology-based solutions" to overseas voting, said to the letter from Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.) and David Vitter (La.) and Democratic Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.) and Michael Honda (Calif.).

"We exist because that office has done a poor job," said Chip Levengood, board chairman of the nonpartisan Overseas Vote Foundation. For the Nov. 4 election, nearly 125,000 voters used automatic registration and ballot services provided by the foundation, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Most were voting overseas for the first time, statistics show.

Henry Dreifus, a member of the advisory Defense Business Board, said the federal voting office "made the Web site a little better" in 2008 "but it still is nowhere near what it should be."

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