By Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - The state's top election official says a new program could boost voter turnout tenfold among Minnesotans overseas.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie on Thursday unveiled a new Web site meant to make it easier for Minnesotans abroad - military members and civilians - to receive absentee election ballots.
Only 5 percent of Minnesota soldiers and their relatives who were overseas during the 2004 presidential election voted, compared to the state's overall voter turnout of about 78 percent.
"We know that's not because people don't want to vote," Ritchie said at a Thursday news conference. "What we discovered was that it was because there were so many barriers."
Two main problems were cited, Ritchie said, including the short period of time between the primary and general elections, and a confusing process for obtaining absentee ballot information.
Ritchie's goal for this presidential election is to increase overseas voter turnout to 50 percent. The Web site allows voters who expect to be overseas during the election to register for an absentee ballot by e-mail or fax; reducing the time it takes to get a ballot. They still must mail the ballot back to Minnesota.
Some of those are college students. Terri Burke, 22, is studying in Ireland this fall through a University of Minnesota, Morris program. She said she was worried about potential problems receiving a ballot by mail, so used the Web site to have her primary and general election ballots sent to her electronically. Signing up was easy, she said.
"I am confident it will also be helpful for students all across the state of Minnesota," Burke said.
Mailing ballots to soldiers overseas can be difficult because the troops often are on the move, said Army Lt. Col. John Kingrey, who was stationed in Kuwait in 2006 and worked on military voter registration.
"The challenge was getting the ballot to them in time so they could return it and be counted for the November election," said Kingrey, a Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate. Soldiers have almost daily computer access, so getting a ballot by e-mail or fax will be easier and quicker, he said.
The electronic-ballot service is open to all active military members serving in the United States or abroad as well as their spouses and children of voting age, if they are with a soldier away from home. It also is open to civilian Minnesotans overseas.
The latest U.S. Department of Defense estimate showed there are up to 90,000 Minnesotans overseas who could vote, Ritchie said. That estimate from last November included more than 12,000 soldiers and 9,000 military family members. There are another 68,000 Minnesotans overseas who are not part of the military.
On the Web: http://minnesota.overseasvotefoundation.org