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If we ask them to serve we must allow them to vote

by Ceridwen Cherry // Published June 19, 2009
I recently finished reading In a Time of War  a book which follows the lives of a group of 2002 West Point graduates-including my friend and Harvard classmate Capt. Drew Sloan-who as the youngest officers bore the brunt of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their experiences are both disturbing and incredibly eye-opening. Regardless of one's views of America's involvement in the wars, this book makes it impossible to ignore the immense sacrifices of those serving in our military.

With the book fresh in my mind, I was especially horrified when I recently began to research the experiences of military and overseas voters and discovered that the difficulties associated with voting from abroad result in widespread disenfranchisement. I've written previously about my own frustrations with voting from overseas, but I'd often presumed that with all the advanced technologies the military possesses it would be able to provide voting access to service members. Sadly I could not have been more wrong. Military voters are disenfranchised in large numbers due to clear failures in our electoral system.

Here are some statistics we must not ignore:

  • There are 4.9 million Americans living and serving abroad who are eligible to vote in US elections- that's more people than live in Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky or Alabama.
  • The National Defense Committee reported that only 22% of the military voted in 2006 as compared to 40% of the general population.
  • In one-third of all States, the voting timetables and deadlines do not provide enough time for military personnel stationed overseas to vote.  Many of these states mail their absentee ballots only 30 days before the election. Yet during the 2008 election the Military Postal System Agency predicted a 57 day round-trip for military ballots to and from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a 43 day round-trip for all other overseas locations.
  • In 2008 39% of military and overseas voters received their ballots too late to return them in time.  This number is up 14% from 2006.
  • According to the Pew Foundation, more than one in five military and overseas voters who requested a ballot in 2008 did not receive one.  As a result, approximately 900,000 individuals who wanted to vote could not.
  • In 2008 in Minnesota, only 15.7 percent of military voters were able to cast a vote that counted in the 2008 presidential election compared to 78 percent of the general population. In Florida only 19.4 percent of military voters cast an absentee ballot that counted.
  • In 2006 484,000 military personnel who requested absentee ballots were not able to cast them.
Fortunately the widespread failure to provide adequate access to our military and overseas voters has not fallen entirely on deaf ears. Both the House and Senate held hearings on the issue early this year and there are currently seven bills before Congress with provisions that will improve electoral access for military and overseas voters.

While this is a promising start what is needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the current Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. Notarization and witness requirements should be dropped for military or overseas voters. Ballots must be made available via email and fax. Until secure online voting is established express mail service, with specific secure pouches within the military postal system, needs to be provided for ballot return. States must extend the amount of time given to return absentee ballots to at least 60 days. All votes that are postmarked on or before election day should be accepted. Instant runoff ballots should be provided to all overseas absentee voters so that their preferences can be included in run-off elections. The Federal Voting Assistance Program must be strengthened and outreach increased so that all military personnel understand how to successfully cast a ballot.

Certainly increasing ballot access for those voting from abroad will take a concerted effort and in some cases additional money. However, if we ask the men and women serving in our military to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, we must also be willing to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure their full participation in our democratic process.