Monday, November 05, 2012

Disenfranchised Over There (Election Edition)

Before you go to the polls tomorrow, stop and give thanks to those who guarantee your franchise.  We refer specifically to those men and women who wear the nation's uniform; without their service and sacrifice, tomorrow's exercise in representative democracy would be at mercy of a maurading foreign power.  So, before you touch that screen or fill out your ballot, think of those military members, from generations past and present, who made it possible.

Then consider this: many of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coasties won't be participating in Tuesday's presidential election.  And it's not due to apathy, or their distance from a polling place.  Instead, their right to vote has fallen prey to bureaucratic incompetence and election year politics.  From The Hill:
A group of Republican senators said Monday that thousands of voter ballots are unlikely to reach military service members until after Nov. 6.
One day ahead of the election, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to express their concern over delays in ballots reaching military voters overseas.    

“We write to express concerns over another serious failure by the Department of Defense (DoD) to safeguard the voting rights of our overseas military service members, which we believe could result in the imminent disenfranchisement of thousands,” the letter stated.
Mail redirection in the military can take between 14 to 50 days, meaning a ballot could reach the voter possibly more than a month after ballots have to be mailed back in order to be counted. The Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA) identified problems with the system after the 2010 election, but hasn’t implemented changes.    
“DoD’s failure to fix this longstanding problem means that the blank ballots of thousands of overseas service members, as well as some who have recently returned from overseas, could be currently trapped in an archaic and inefficient mail forwarding system,” the senators wrote. “These ballots are unlikely to reach these service members until after Election Day has passed."
Cue Bill Murray.  If this seems like something out of Groundhog Day, it should.  As we've noted in countless posts over the past seven years, this sort of thing happens every election cycle.  Military absentee ballots are often mailed out late by states and municipalities, meaning they can't be returned in time to be counted.  And Congressional Democrats have consistently refused to support legislation mandating that military absentee ballots be shipped by the fastest means available.  So much for bi-partisanship.  
This year, there was a new wrinkle.  DoD is required to set up voter assistance offices on all of its installations around the world.  But a check by the Pentagon's inspector general (in late summer) found that many of the offices couldn't be reached, suggesting they had not been established, or staffers weren't around to take a phone call--or help military voters.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta finally ordered his service chiefs to look into the IG's findings in mid-October, less than three weeks before the election.  At that late date, it was virtually impossible to fix base-level problems with the voter assistance program.  Coincidence?  You be the judge.  
To be fair, there are some who insist the absentee voter problem isn't the result of a conspiracy.  A few hours after the GOP senators registered their complaint, the bureaucracy struck back, through an article printed in the Everett, Washington Herald (among other publications), claiming the issue can be easily explained by other factors, including a change in automatic mailings of absentee ballots (which often went to the former addresses of military personnel) and declining election-year interest.  
Through Oct. 26, 846,442 military personnel, voting-age dependents and U.S. civilians living overseas had downloaded the Federal Post-Card Application from the website run by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. That's down 21 percent from 2008.

By the same date in 2008, at least 1,082,540 military and overseas voters had downloaded the post card, which they can use to register to vote and request an absentee ballot.
Pamela Mitchell, acting director of the voting program, which administers federal tasks of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, gave several possible reasons for the drop. One is that, with the Iraq war over, fewer military are deployed, including Guard and Reserve members. 
That may be true, but there are still more than 68,000 service members in Afghanistan--and thousands more serving in other locations around the world, including a significant number of guard and reserve personnel.  But their other theory is a real howler, namely that thousands of military members have lost interest in the election, as Ms. Mitchell suggests:
"...a drop of 236,000 (in post-card applications) is large enough also to indicate a general decline in voter interest. Mitchell conceded that point, too.

"We encourage voting but we recognize that, at the end of the day, it's a personal choice … What we want to make sure of is that, for those who want to execute that right, we provide every assistance possible," Mitchell said.
Let's see...the most important presidential contest in a generation, with huge implications for U.S. national security and the military, and roughly 10% of the armed forces population is sitting this one out?  Sorry, but that logic doesn't exactly pass the Aggie test.  
For what it's worth, Ms. Mitchell also claimed that the military voter assistance program is "in the best place it's ever been" to help members of the armed services cast their ballots.  Guess someone forgot to tell the DoD IG, which was deeply concerned about those voting assistance offices that couldn't be reached barely four months before the election.  
And of course, the article doesn't begin to address the problems with ballots that are mailed out late, or a military postal system that can't implement required reforms.  Those Republican Senators have every right to question the never-ending problems with armed forces absentee voting, but they need to offer a solution, not just indignation.  
As we observed three years ago, the State of Arizona has developed a remarkably effective on-line voting system that allows thousands of service members to cast their ballots without worrying about the base voting office, or the whims of the U.S. Postal Service.  Other states also allow on-line voting, and there is no reason these cannot be adopted for absentee voting by all overseas military personnel.  A defense department that spends billions of dollars on IT technology every year can allocate the resources necessary to create a secure, on-line voting system for military personnel stationed overseas.  Experts claim that fax and e-mail ballots carry serious security risks, but that hasn't been the case in Arizona, which has been using on-line voting since 2008.  
Simply stated, there has to be a better system than the current, failed model.  And even if the dramatic decline in military absentee voting isn't the result of a conspiracy, it's very clear that the officials in charge of the program--at the local, state and federal levels--are doing very little to increase voting participation by the very men and women who defend the franchise for us all.              


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