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Tribune Editorial: Minnesotans overseas should be able to vote

Cheers to Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The state's top election official says a new program could boost voter turnout tenfold among Minnesotans overseas, according to our St. Paul Bureau reporter Scott Wente.

Ritchie on Thursday unveiled a new Web site designed to make it easier for Minnesotans abroad -- military members and civilians -- to receive absentee election ballots.

It was a change that was sorely needed: 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 news conference. "What we discovered was that it was because there were so many barriers."

There are two main problems: The short period of time between the primary and general elections, and a confusing process for obtaining absentee ballot information.

For this presidential election, Ritchie hopes to hike 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, Wente reported. They still must mail the ballot back to Minnesota.

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 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. Wente reported. 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.

Ritchie deserves a pat on the back for making this a priority. Living or serving overseas should not effectively mean losing your right to vote.