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OPINION

GOP attempts to limit vote-by-mail put vets at risk

By SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: September 4, 2020

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When you’re deployed to a war zone where even a fledgling democracy is a dream thousands are dying for, the significance of being able to take part in your own country’s free, fair elections comes into sharp relief.

I still remember the afternoon I received my vote-by-mail ballot at my Army Helicopter Battalion Operations Center in Balad, Iraq. The election was 10 days before an RPG exploded in the Black Hawk I was flying, ending my time in combat — so while I didn’t know it then, filling out that ballot would be one of my last acts of civic duty in Iraq. What I did know, however, was the pride I felt in that moment: Six thousand miles away from my usual polling place, my unit and I were performing the most American act possible. We were making our voices heard, even if it was from half a world away.

It shouldn’t have been easier for troops to vote from Iraq in 2004 than it is for veterans to vote in 2020 on U.S. soil. Nevertheless, that’s the reality as millions of veterans now face an impossible decision: whether to risk their lives to go to the ballot box in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

But let’s be clear: That’s the reality only because certain Republicans are making it so. For voters in the few states that conduct their elections nearly entirely by mail, there is no real decision; they can safely, securely send in their ballots from home, without worrying about taking public transit to polling places, getting too close to others or touching shared voting screens. Yet in an obviously partisan ploy, the GOP has been trying to stamp out any efforts to expand that kind of no-excuse vote-by-mail access to more Americans.

Led by President Donald Trump, Republicans have weaponized this pandemic to continue their decades-long march to suppress the ballot, knowing that fewer people will vote this fall if not given the option to do so safely, with the belief that lower turnout will help their candidates. And they’re doing so despite research suggesting that voting by mail doesn’t give either party an advantage and polling showing that about 65% of Americans support no-excuse mail-in voting as a safe alternative during this pandemic.

The Republican National Committee has sued states to try to keep them from expanding vote-by-mail. Trump has continually threatened states’ funding for pushing that expansion, suggesting it could lead to cats and dogs getting ballots — ignoring that he voted by mail in Florida’s primary last month. Then most recently, Trump-megadonor-turned-Postmaster General Louis DeJoy tried to please his boss by nixing overtime for postal employees, cutting hours at post offices and shuttering mail processing facilities, all of which would’ve made it unimaginably harder for Americans’ mail-in votes to get tallied this fall. The glare of national scrutiny forced him to backtrack — although he’s still refusing to address the damage already done, including saying he has “no intention” of reinstalling the mail-sorting machines that’ve been taken away under his watch.

We know what would happen if Trump continues to get his way. We saw a preview of it in Wisconsin’s election in April, when only five of Milwaukee’s 180 polling places were open, forcing voters to risk their health by waiting hours for their turn at the ballot box. And since at least 40 states have election laws as bad or worse than Wisconsin’s, an untold number of Americans will be more likely to fall sick come November if Republican officials insist on putting political self-interest ahead of the health and constitutional rights of the people.

This should not be anything close to a partisan issue. The people most hurt here will be the people most vulnerable to this virus, which includes many of our veterans. Almost half of American Veterans are over age 65. Millions were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, while countless more have been exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan in more recent conflicts — two types of exposure that we know lead to serious respiratory issues that, in turn, make those suffering more susceptible to COVID-19.

These are heroes who went to war to protect our constitutional rights, including our right to vote. Yet by refusing to expand vote-by-mail access, Trump is forcing them to wager their lives to participate in the very democracy they already risked everything to defend. Their health or their ballot; their peace of mind or their piece of our democracy — that’s the choice the president is giving them, all for the sake of his personal gain.

That’s a shameful, shameless strategy from a politician who himself voted by mail just weeks ago. No true leader would put our veterans’ health in unnecessary danger. That’s just about the least presidential, and least American, thing I’ve ever heard.

Our veterans deserve better. Because while we will never be able to repay the debt we owe them, it’s on us to try — and allowing them to exercise a constitutional right they fought so hard to defend should be the bare minimum. That should be a given. That’s not only the right thing to do, but the patriotic one as well, and every day that Republicans refuse to pass legislation ensuring they can do so is an insult to all those who’ve worn an American flag on their shoulder.

Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, represents Illinois in the U.S. Senate.