If any Americans have a stake in the outcome of this year's elections, the soldiers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other remote outposts around the world do. Unfortunately, their ballots are among the least likely to be counted.
Only about 30 percent of the overseas military ballots were tallied in the last national election in 2006, according to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission, which monitors election problems. And, despite high interest on the part of U.S. military personnel, that is not likely to change this year.
The problem stems from a voting system that relies almost entirely on conventional mail service and which is hampered by additional red tape and regulations. As a result, thousands of those who have sworn to protect this nation's right to vote will have that right thwarted when they try to cast a ballot.
This is how military overseas voting works: A registered voter must request, in writing, an absentee ballot from the local election district where he or she last lived. That can take up to 30 days. The soldier waits to receive a paper absentee ballot, then fills it out and mails it back. That can take another 30 days.
Any number of possible glitches can prevent troops from receiving ballots or delivering them to election officials back home. Mail can get lost or delayed if heavy fighting stops supply convoys. And because the military often is on the move, ballots can be delivered to bases where the recipient no longer is assigned.
The obvious solution is to find a way to allow troops to vote online. The Pentagon spent $25 million to investigate such a system but abandoned plans after experts said online ballots would be vulnerable to fraud.
But this is a world where billions of transactions occur every day over the Internet. Money is transferred securely online all the time. Critics note that even the Pentagon transfers top secret information by secure electronic means.
The Pew Center on the States is working on a bill that would eliminate conflicting local rules about issues such as faxing ballots or sending them as an e-mail attachment. The bill would make regulations uniform nationwide.
Being able to fax or download ballots would be an improvement over snail mail. Nonetheless, it is astounding that the best military minds can't devise a safe way for troops to vote electronically.
Perhaps the Pentagon should settle for a high degree of ballot security rather than demanding a foolproof system. After all, the paper ballots Americans have used for centuries always have been subject to tampering. And no one has been able to ensure that the electronic voting machines millions of Americans will be using to cast their ballots on Nov. 4 are completely tamper-proof.
What's worse -- using an imperfect online voting system, or depriving thousands of U.S. troops their opportunity to vote?