Although it might seem hard to believe, election ballots cast by U.S. military personnel aren’t always counted — because they’re received late.

Voting has historically been a paper-based process, and especially so for absentee voters outside the United States. Depending on where a soldier is stationed, it has taken weeks for ballots to be sent through postal mail, filled out by military personnel, and then received back home. Sometimes the ballot doesn’t arrive in time for vote tallying on Election Day.

The federal government is trying to rectify this problem by funding a grant program for state and local governments so they can implement technology enabling military and overseas citizens to vote on time. The Federal Voting Assistance Program announced the first six of these grants — totaling $7 million — this month.

Sacramento County, Calif., was one of 13 California counties selected to receive grant funding. The Federal Voting Assistance Program, a section of the U.S. Department of Defense, awarded nearly $1.8 million to Cal E-Promise — a coalition of the 13 participating California counties— to ease the process for military and overseas voters to register to vote online, receive, track and return absentee ballots.

“While military voters are often mobile, traveling throughout the world, electronic delivery of their ballot will allow them to access their ballot anywhere, starting 60 days prior to an election,” said Jill LaVine, Sacramento County’s registrar of voters, in a statement.

Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County’s assistant registrar, said the Cal E-Promise coalition was created for the purpose of pursuing the grant.

Jarboe said now that the coalition has been chosen to receive the funding, it will be working with technology firm Democracy Live to develop absentee ballots in PDFs to be accessed online so residents living abroad can download the ballot, print it out, vote and fax it back or send it back through U.S. mail.

“It will eliminate the lead time of a paper ballot leaving our office in Sacramento and going to the other side of the world to wherever they might be: Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever they’re stationed,” Jarboe said. “The paper delivery process is eliminated.”

The Electronic Absentee Systems for Elections grant program funded nearly $7 million that will be distributed to five other recipients aside from Cal E-Promise. Recipients also included a consortium of counties in Washington state as well as the states of Ohio and Maryland.

Nearly 135,000 military and overseas voters will be served as a result of the grant money, according to the federal government. In 2008, the top failure for military and overseas voters was due to ballot transmission, federal officials said. More intuitive, online access to ballots should result in more military and overseas voters sending their ballots in before the deadline to vote.

But in California’s case, state law prohibits the complete elimination of paper forms in order to maintain the integrity of votes cast. Residents may receive blank ballots but cannot return a voted ballot via email.

Democracy Live will work with California’s coalition to make the counties’ voting and ballot information available through a cloud-based hosted application developed in partnership with Microsoft, said Bryan Finney, president of Democracy Live.

“It allows any voter anywhere in the world to be able to access their ballot and mark their ballot the moment that is goes live,” Finney said.

He said the cloud solution is already used in 60 countries where military and overseas U.S. residents are stationed. The application was also recently selected by Florida and Virginia, Finney said.

Jarboe said Sacramento County is targeting to have the application available for the June 2012 election. Since military and overseas residents are entitled to receive ballots 60 days before an election, the application would need to be up and running by April 2012.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.