WITH the United States presidential election just around the corner, time was running out for Diana Peterson last week. Living in Stuttgart, Germany, she still had not received her absentee ballot, even though she sent away for it months ago.
Mrs. Peterson, however, discovered that she had a recourse not available in past national elections: the fax machine. Thanks to new voting procedures, she was able to speedily reregister and reapply for her Virginia ballot via fax. She now hopes to receive, fill out, and return her ballot by election day, Nov. 3.
The facsimile machine made its debut with voters in 1990 during Operation Desert Shield, when American soldiers were called up on short notice.
Now, 27 states allow military personnel stationed in the United States and overseas, as well as American civilians abroad, to apply for absentee ballots by fax; 14 states will fax absentee ballots to voters; and a handful of states, including North Dakota, Utah, and Louisiana, will allow voters to fax completed ballots back, although in this case, the voters waives the right to secrecy.
"In some remote places, by the very nature of it, you're dealt out of the voting process. You could send a fax to the South Pole - and we do have North Dakotans living there!" says Jim Kusler, North Dakota secretary of state.
The North Dakota legislature had to change its state laws in order to permit voting by fax, but Mr. Kusler says this was a good decision because it enfranchises more people. Experience has shown that it is "very hard" to obtain, complete, and mail an absentee ballot in 40 days, he says. "That's a lot of mail having to go back and forth."
MOST states mail ballots between 30 and 40 days before the election, but Alaska, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Washington mail ballots only three weeks ahead.
Phyllis Taylor, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program at the Pentagon, says her office is pressuring other states to change their laws to allow fax registering and voting. The fax machine, she says, removes the ballot-transit-time factor, "the primary obstacle to people voting overseas."
In 1988, according to Ms. Taylor, 63.5 percent of eligible absentee voters in the military sent in their ballots, but only 38.3 percent of civilians abroad voted.
According to Taylor, the new faxing option is generating many inquiries. The Voting Assistance Program runs toll-free hot lines for absentee voters in roughly 50 countries. Taylor's office at the Pentagon is swamped with 200 to 300 calls a day and she says she is about to increase her staff.
There also are concerns that widespread fax registering and voting could lead to an abuse of the system. Taylor tries to have her office act as a central clearinghouse for faxes from all over the world. This "maintains the integrity of the process and leaves an audit trail." Otherwise, she says, "ballots would be all over the place."
For more information on fax registering and voting, call Taylor's office at (703) 693-5527, or fax (703) 695-0663, or contact the voter registration office in your hometown or county or state.