MEXICO CITY (AP) -- This year, for the first time, expatriate Democrats can cast their ballots on the Internet in a presidential primary for people living outside the United States.
Democrats Abroad, an official branch of the party representing overseas voters, will hold its first global presidential preference primary from Feb. 5 to 12, with ex-pats selecting the candidate of their choice by Internet as well as fax, mail and in-person at polling places in more than 100 countries.
Democrats Abroad is particularly proud of the online voting option - which provides a new alternative to the usual process of voting from overseas, a system made difficult by complicated voter registration paperwork, early deadlines and unreliable foreign mail service.
"The online system is incredibly secure: That was one of our biggest goals," said Lindsey Reynolds, executive director of Democrats Abroad. "And it does allow access to folks who ordinarily wouldn't get to participate."
U.S. citizens wanting to vote online must join Democrats Abroad before Feb. 1 and indicate their preference to vote by Internet instead of in the local primaries wherever they last lived in the United States. They must promise not to vote twice for president, but can still participate in non-presidential local elections.
Members get a personal identification number from Everyone Counts Inc., the San Diego-based company running the online election. They can then use the number to log in and cast their ballots.
Their votes will be represented at the August Democratic National Convention by 22 delegates, who according to party rules get half a vote each for a total of 11. That's more than U.S. territories get, but fewer than the least populous states, Wyoming and Alaska, which get 18 delegate votes each.
Everyone Counts has been building elections software for a decade, running the British Labor Party's online voting since 2000 and other British elections since 2003, chief executive officer Lori Steele said.
Online voting may give absentee voters more assurance that their ballots are being counted, since confirmation is not available in some counties. The Everyone Counts software even lets voters print out a receipt, unlike most electronic voting machines now in use in many states.
"We've had no security breaches. We do constant monitoring," Steele said. Online voting "provides really a higher standard of security than is available in any other kind of system, including paper."
Steele said a number of U.S. states had contacted her company to inquire about online voting for the 2008 presidential election.
"There are many, many states in the U.S. that would like to be offering this to their expatriate voters, their military voters and their disabled voters," Steele said.
But online voting has been slowed by a lack of funding for pilot programs. In a floor speech this month, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., pushed for the distribution of money already approved under the Help America Vote Act so that states can improve ex-pat voting before the general election.
Some 6 million Americans living abroad are eligible to vote in U.S. elections, but only a fraction do so. Until recently, the only option was to mail absentee ballot request forms to the last U.S. county of residence, then wait in hopes that shaky mail systems would deliver the ballots in time to vote.
The system is so unreliable that of 992,034 ballots requested from overseas for the 2006 general election, only 330,000 were cast or counted, and 70 percent of those not counted were returned to elections officials as undeliverable, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found.
In 2004, Juliet Lambert took her Oregon ballot to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, where drop service is available because of Mexico's notoriously undependable mail.
"I had to go through security to drop off my ballot, and I remember thinking I really must want to vote," said Lambert, a 37-year-old caterer who works with Democrats Abroad in Mexico. "I think it can be really daunting for people."
This year, Lambert is voting by Internet, "because it's easier, and I'm always online anyway."
Republicans Abroad has operated independently of the Republican Party since 2003, and therefore can't hold in-person or Internet votes abroad. But it is organizing to get more overseas Republicans registered back home before the primaries, Executive Director Cynthia Dillon said.
Republican votes from overseas could be more decisive because even small margins can make a difference in their winner-take-all state primaries. The Democrats divide primary votes proportionally, assigning delegates according to each leading candidate's share.
"In the Republican primary, the overseas vote could actually have a bigger impact: That vote could be the tipping vote, so to speak, that decides an election in a close race," said Steven Hill, an elections expert who directs the New America Foundation's Political Reform Program.
With so many states having moved up their primary dates, overseas voters should hurry up and register no matter how they plan on voting, Hill said. "These compressed timetables really make it difficult."
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