Make Absentee Voting Easier for Military Members

Posted January 21, 2009 at 1:42pm

Ever since the 2000 election’s Florida controversy, problems with absentee voting by our military personnel overseas have been on the minds of election reformers — but not so much on the agenda of election officials.

Military members are constantly risking their lives to protect our rights and freedoms. But despite their sacrifices, they often face numerous obstacles when it comes to exercising their own rights, particularly in the area of voting.

Mail delays pose key problems for military voting, often causing individuals to miss ballot submission deadlines. Furthermore, a lack of sufficient voter assistance resources and the resulting low- level of awareness of the workings of the overall process often make voting overly burdensome for military members. Implementing a few minor improvements to the current system could make voting significantly easier than it is today for men and women in the military.

Military members assigned to move abroad are either deployed or sent on a permanent change of station, or PCS. In both cases they are given a pre-move checklist — termed the “pre-deployment checklist” and the “PCS checklist,” respectively — which they must complete prior to their departures. These checklists include reminders to fill out proper legal and medical forms, to arrange certain mandatory meetings with base staff and to set up optional meetings with, for example, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (or legal) office to create a will, or with the base chaplain to discuss religious concerns.

But the checklists do not automatically include a simple reminder to arrange an optional meeting with the unit’s voting assistance officer, who is assigned to help guide unit members through the voting process in the pre- deployment and PCS checklists. Though included in checklists from some bases, the reminder to contact the VAO is far from uniform. It is often excluded from the pre-deployment list even though it is an essential part of informing military members of voting procedures in combat zones.

Institutionalizing the process of meeting with the unit VAO — of course, as an option, not as a mandate — would help ensure more effective voting assistance. Military members should be given the option of registering to vote prior to deploying or “PCSing.” The VAOs should make themselves available to help military members properly fill out their voter registration forms and to answer questions.

In addition, we need minor simplifications to the voting process, which would be explained to military members by their VAOs. Mail to deployed military members in combat zones is sporadic at best. The Military Postal Service Agency estimates that mail to Iraq takes about 11 to 13 days to arrive, though military mail service throughout the world can be halted on a moment’s notice depending on combat conditions.

Under the current military voting provisions implemented through the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2002 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002, to request an absentee ballot, deployed military members must fill out and mail in the federal post card application to the appropriate county clerk. The clerk then mails a blank absentee ballot, and on receipt, the military member must fill out the ballot and once again mail it back to the county clerk. Each step of this back-and-forth mailing process adds extra delays and increases the risk of military members missing voting deadlines. Though military members are permitted to fill out a federal write-in absentee ballot should their requested absentee ballots fail to arrive in time, such a ballot usually only enables the individual to vote in federal, but not state, elections.

Most military members can more readily access the Internet than they can receive “snail” mail. Deployed members commonly have Web cameras to see loved ones and are able to send e-mails even from war zones. To help ease the military voting process, military members should be permitted to print out their county-specific ballots from the Internet by logging into a secure military Web site. Their login information should then enable them to print out their county-specific absentee ballot and an already-addressed, easy-to-assemble envelope — thereby simplifying the process of determining where to send ballots and reducing ballot addressing errors. On receipt of the ballot, the county clerk would then verify that the voter was indeed registered to vote in that particular county — as he would have presumably done prior to deploying or PCS-ing with the help of the unit VAO.

Many election reform researchers argue that Internet voting is especially vulnerable to fraud, but the proposed system would be even more secure than what is already becoming available to many Americans abroad. During the 2008 presidential primaries, Democrats abroad were permitted not only to access their ballots online but were even permitted to vote online. The Munich, Germany-based Overseas Vote Foundation co-partnered with the Pew Center on the States to create an absentee ballot database. Voters abroad can now access and print their county-specific absentee ballot through less secure Web sites than the military provides.

Is it not time we gave our brave men and women of the U.S. military at the very least what is already afforded to American civilians living abroad?

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