The Magazine

Disenfranchised Over There

Let's defend the voting rights of those who defend us.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By HANS A. VON SPAKOVSKY and ROMAN BUHLER
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Over the past 40 years, starting with the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress has sought to guarantee the right of every American citizen to vote. But there is still a large and significant group of Americans who are needlessly disenfranchised: the millions of men and women who serve abroad in our armed forces.

A survey by the Election Assistance Commission shows that of almost 1 million ballots requested in the last election by overseas and military voters, only about one third were successfully cast and counted. The most common reasons for this failure were that the requested ballots sent to voters were returned as "undeliverable" and that marked ballots were received too late to be counted.

Military personnel based outside the United States are still dependent on the mail to receive and cast their ballots. When an election official sends a ballot overseas, it can take three weeks (or more) to reach a soldier in Iraq or a sailor on a ship halfway around the world. Even if the soldier or sailor completes the ballot immediately, it may take another three weeks to get back. Many ballots simply do not get home in time.

The Pentagon spent millions on a high-tech solution that transmitted ballots over the Internet, but abandoned the effort because of serious security risks. Some states now allow completed ballots to be faxed to election officials from overseas voters, but many soldiers in the field don't have access to fax machines, and faxing ballots imperils the secrecy of the vote. Some states also allow ballots postmarked overseas before the date of the election to be received, unlike all other ballots, after the close of polls. Unfortunately, given the unreliability of some overseas postal authorities, this poses significant risk of fraudulently postmarked ballots, especially in a very close election.

Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy has just introduced the Military Voting Protection Act, which would require the Pentagon to collect absentee ballots overseas and deliver them stateside by express air transport. This could shorten the delivery time for overseas ballots from three weeks to only four days. It would mean that many thousands of ballots that were rejected in 2004 would count in 2008.

A more comprehensive solution, though, could be crafted from the historical example of the first absentee ballots cast by American soldiers. The election of 1864 was held in the middle of a civil war when large numbers of voters were fighting in the field. Wisconsin decided to allow its soldiers to vote absentee, and other states quickly followed suit. Rather than a slow and cumbersome ballot-by-mail process, the states simply set up polling sites in the field encampments of their soldiers. This was easier to do in 1864 when soldiers in many military units came from only one state or community. But modern technology should be able to overcome any obstacles today.

Imagine a system where Congress and the states coordinated an effort to set up early voting sites at or near military installations all over the world. Once a voter provides proper identification that matches his or her name on the voter registration lists each state is required to maintain by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, an electronically uploaded ballot provided by that state could be printed out for the soldier. The ballots completed at each overseas early voting site could then be sent back to the appropriate election officials in the United States through express mail.

Except in extraordinary circumstances such as special forces teams in the field or sailors on ships far out at sea, ballots completed by the Friday before the election could be in the hands of local election officials by the close of polling on Election Day. Early voting sites and an express mail delivery system would enfranchise hundreds of thousands of military voters who today never get their vote counted.

And while establishing overseas early voting sites would take time, a system for express delivery of completed ballots from military bases and U.S. consulates could be implemented in 2008, if Congress and the president worked together. Surely, improving the voting rights of our men and women in uniform is a strong enough motivation.

Dwight Eisenhower, a general who went on to become president, once said that "the future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter." Those hands should include all of those who protect and defend this nation and fight to keep it free.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission. Roman Buhler is a former elections counsel for the House Administration Committee.