Finish the Fight for Our Soldiers’ Right to Vote

Posted November 17, 2008 at 2:57pm

One of the main issues in Florida during the 2000 elections was military absentee voting. Members of Congress were outraged at the possibility of even one military vote not counting. Yet, eight years later, no one seems to be paying attention.

Many people fail to appreciate that millions of Americans were able to successfully exercise their right to vote in this past election because of U.S. military members’ tireless efforts to protect our freedoms. But what about the rights of the military members themselves? The Pentagon estimates that roughly 580,000 members of the military and their families currently live abroad. These military families bravely serve our country, yet in practice, they are often ignored in U.S. elections.

The 1942 Soldier Voting Act ensured that deployed, active-duty military serving abroad during World War II could vote by absentee ballot in the upcoming presidential and Congressional races. In 1944, Congress amended the act to “recommend” (rather than to ensure) that states permit absentee balloting for all military members. With the passage of the Federal Voting Assistance Act in 1955, military members and their dependents had still not been granted a guaranteed right to vote absentee. Finally, under the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975, military members and their families were granted expanded absentee voting rights.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act signed by President Ronald Reagan on Aug. 28, 1986, allowed individuals to print out and submit a “Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot” should their requested absentee ballot fail to arrive in time, so at least their votes could be counted in a federal (though not state) election.

The UOCAVA was altered by the National Defense Authorization and the Help America Vote acts of 2002, which provide the current framework for deployed military voting. Under the current provisions, each military unit has an appointed “Voting Assistance Officer” who assumes additional responsibilities of guiding his or her unit members through the voting process. The unit VAO is regularly provided with the latest information on state voting procedures. The VAO, in turn, reminds the unit of upcoming election deadlines and procedures, either by sending e-mails or holding briefings.

Though voting assistance is now provided to deployed military members, the process still remains complex and often inaccessible. According to a Government Accountability Office report released in April 2006, variations in VAO training, along with the challenge of the VAO managing these additional tasks, contributed to an overall difficulty in successfully conveying important voting information to military members and their families.

It is difficult for the VAO to successfully assist all members of his or her unit since they are often registered to vote in a variety of states and counties. Military absentee ballots must be mailed to the appropriate county clerk within the state where the military member is registered. Complicating matters further, each state requires different registration forms and absentee ballots. For example, Alabama requires the ballot to be notarized or to have two signed witnesses.

Submission deadlines and requirements also vary by state. While the vast majority of states this year required ballots to be postmarked no later than Nov. 4, states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah required ballots to have been postmarked by Nov. 3. But some states, such as South Carolina, even accepted military absentee ballots as late as six days after the elections.

Mail delays combined with the problem of delivering mail to invalid addresses pose key problems for military families. The Military Postal Service Agency assists in transporting ballots from deployed military members and their families and reported having transported as many as 110,000 ballots in the 2004 elections. But many of these ballots are likely to have arrived too late, as the MPSA estimates that mail to and from Iraq takes roughly 11 to 13 days to arrive, and to and from Afghanistan takes roughly 10 to 12 days.

Today, military members have the option of filling out a “Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot” should they fail to receive their requested ballot in time, but such a ballot provides only partial relief in most states. With the exception of a few states such as South Carolina, military members who vote via these federal ballots are not able to vote in their specific state elections.

Furthermore, in order to even be permitted to fill out the FWAB, military members must have successfully completed the voter registration and absentee ballot request processes in a timely manner. The appropriate county clerks must have received absentee ballot request forms a minimum of 30 days prior to an upcoming election — a difficult task with sporadic mail service.

With so much attention focused on campaigns and Americans voting in the U.S. proper, deployed military members have often been overlooked. While active-duty American service members are constantly putting their lives on the line to protect the many freedoms the United States enjoys, these same individuals are repeatedly excluded from enjoying the very benefits they have fought so hard to maintain.

With various versions of bills designed to improve the military absentee voting process still being discussed in the 110th Congress, it is important that Congress act now to improve the ease with which those who bravely serve our country can have their voices heard.

Jessica Leval is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute and the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project.