Opinion: Absentee ballots must be present and accounted for
Bob Carey, a Navy reservist and senior fellow at the National Defense Committee, had always made sure to cast his vote on Election Day. That changed in 2004 when he was abruptly sent by the U.S. Navy to the Persian Gulf, just days before the presidential election. With one-to-two-week delays for receiving mail in the Middle East and complex regulations governing absentee voting, the system simply did not offer a method that would allow him to receive, complete and return his ballot in time to be counted. While charged with protecting democracy abroad, Carey was confronted with enormous obstacles that hindered his ability to vote in his own country’s elections.
Unfortunately, Carey’s experience is common. Red tape, complex regulations and outdated ballot delivery methods routinely disenfranchise tens of thousands of service members deployed overseas. We should pledge to make sure that all of our military men and women have the opportunity to be a full participant in the democratic process.
The problems facing military voters are widespread and occur in nearly every state, due to cumbersome laws and regulations governing absentee voting and an outdated reliance on slow and unpredictable mail systems. The results are appalling: Fewer than 48 percent of ballots requested by overseas military voters in the 2006 midterm elections were counted. And in 2000, during the closest presidential election ever, Florida officials disqualified more than 1,500 military votes, nearly three times the number of votes that ultimately decided the election.
The situation gets worse when you factor in those who requested a ballot but never received it due to the inherent difficulty of relying on mail service in war zones. Complicated state regulations can also present unnecessary obstacles by forcing servicemembers to determine everything from proper mailing addresses, deadlines and notarization rules to paper and envelope size requirements.
With this year’s dramatically concentrated presidential primaries beginning at the end of the holiday season, our troops will face greater obstacles than ever before. Shortened timetables and last-minute decisions on primary dates mean servicemembers will have less time to register and cast their ballots. It also means that their requests, ballots and votes will be mixed in with the enormous volume of holiday mail — adding even more delay and uncertainty to the process.
The good news is states can now help every servicemember vote. A new Web site, www.overseasvotefoundation.org, developed by the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Make Voting Work initiative, offers much-needed assistance. Launched last month, the site walks American overseas voters through their state’s requirements, helping to fill out the forms online and automatically checking all information to ensure requests are not disqualified based on technicalities.
Alabama and Ohio have joined Minnesota in partnering with OVF to customize this software for our own state Web sites and we hope others follow. This straightforward technological solution is an important first step in protecting servicemembers’ right to vote. Still, much more needs to be done.
States must use all available means to cut through unnecessary red tape and obstacles. We can start by making sure that every state with a sizable military population develops a plan to improve its election services to military voters prior to the 2008 general election and track how well it performed.
The armed forces should affirmatively offer every new recruit the opportunity to register to vote using the standardized, national voter registration form and take responsibility for returning the forms to the appropriate county or state election office.
Finally, every state should deliver election materials to military and overseas voters by fax and e-mail. While returning completed forms via electronic means raises privacy and security concerns, we can cut the transit delays in half by forwarding blank ballots through the fastest possible means.
Over the last few years our nation has asked a lot from the military and their families. They have responded with courage and resolve. It is up to us to make sure that they are not denied a voice in the democracy they serve at such great cost.
Jennifer Brunner (D) is Ohio secretary of state. Beth Chapman (R) is Alabama secretary of state. Rebecca W. Rimel is president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts.