MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON Sen. Conrad Burns, Rmont., said Thursday that he is dropping holds on civilian Pentagon nominees after military officials agreed to smooth the voting process for troops serving overseas. A Burns spokesman said the Pentagon has pledged to “do whatever is necessary” to get a new voting system in place by this November so that local governments can electronically transmit ballots to military abroad. Several lawmakers have cited concerns that the voting process for troops overseas is so complex and time consuming that their ballots can arrive too late to be counted. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the department is committed to creating the new voting system. “The Department of Defense is aggressively working to ensure that all service members and their families serving around the world will be able to receive their ballots electronically and have an opportunity to vote for the candidate of their choice in the upcoming November election,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin. Burns spokesman Derek Hunter said the Department of Defense has also agreed to track military voting rates in the upcoming election to assess how many members of the military are voting. A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the issue is also expected, Hunter said. Under the proposed new system, absentee military voters could download and print the ballots and then return them by mail. Under the current system, members of the military must contact local officials by regular mail and request a ballot, which is then mailed to them. The voter then must fill out the ballot by hand and send it back to his or her state, also by regular mail. Burns, who is up for re-election, said he would block the defense nominations earlier this week. He said the Pentagon did not appear serious about implementing the new voting system, despite $2.5 million appropriated for it earlier this year. Mark Simonich, Montana’s chief deputy secretary of state, said his office has worked with Burns to get agreement from the Pentagon. “Any steps we can take to help get the ballots into soldiers’ hands as quickly as possible and then get them returned as quickly as possible will be effective,” Simonich said. Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.