It's become a staple of American politics; Democratic claims that such requirements as voter ID rules or polling hours somehow "suppress" certain segments of the electorate. If this year's presidential contest is close, it's a good bet the Democratic activists and party officials will claim that some voters were "never counted," or demand that a judge extend polling hours. And, if that fails, there will be the inevitable media campaign, replete with testimony from voters who claim they weren't allowed to cast a ballot.
Oddly enough, there is a group of U.S. citizens that routinely has their votes tossed out, or never counted in the first place. But they're not members of a racial minority, or classified as urban poor. In fact, they are the Americans who, ultimately, guarantee our right to vote.
We're talking, of course, about members of the armed forces. Writing in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, Hans A. von Spakovsky and Roman Buhler suggest that service members and their families are the "most disenfranchised" segment of our society. Their assessment is based on a recent survey from the Election Assistance Commission, which found:
"...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.
The problem is painfully obvious; in the computer age, we're still using outdated technology that isn't fast enough to disseminate and collect the ballots before the election.
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 of California has introduced a bill, aimed at reforming the current system. His legislation would require the Pentagon to collect absentee ballots overseas and return them by air transport. That would cut delivery time from three to four weeks, to as little as four days, allowing more military ballots to be counted.
But Mr. von Spakovsky (a former member of the Federal Election Commission) and Mr. Buhler, a long-time staffer on Capitol Hill, believe there is a better way. Borrowing an idea from the Civil War, when states set up polling places near their regiments in the field, they envision high-tech voting centers located on or near military installations:
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.
It sounds like an idea whose time has come--and clearly, the technology exists to make the voting system a reality. So, why is Congressman McCarthy pressing for air mail delivery of absentee ballots, instead of something more high-tech?
The answer lies in the voting habits of military members and their dependents. Despite claims about Democratic "inroads" among that electorate, members of the armed forces remain overwhelmingly conservative (and Republican) in their political outlook and affiliation. That trend is particularly evident among the career officers and non-commissioned officers who form the backbone of today's military.
In an era of tight presidential contests, Democrats don't want another 500-600,000 ballots in the mix, knowing that 60% of military voters are Republicans. They form an important bloc in many key states (including Florida), with the ability to swing a close election. Lest we forget, Democratic lawyers specifically targeted military absentee ballots in the aftermath of the 2000 vote in the Sunshine State, attempting to get them thrown out.
Simply stated, Democrats will not support a system that would significantly increase the number of military votes in future elections. So far, not a single Democrat has signed on in support of McCarthy's modest reform proposal. All of his co-sponsors (30 so far) are Republicans. Democrats apparently prefer the existing system, based on "snail mail" delivery that guarantees delivery of many military ballots after the voting deadline.
It's another reminder that Democrats are selective (some would say hypocritical) when they talk about making "every vote count." And they wonder why so many members of the armed forces keep pulling the lever for the GOP.