Thursday, May 14, 2009

Making Every (Military) Vote Count

During the run-up to last year's presidential election, there was the predictable hue-and-cry about making sure that "every vote was counted." Fine, we said, but what about military voters? Fact is, members of the armed services are the most disenfranchised segment of the electorate. Thousands of absentee ballots from military members (and their dependent) go uncounted every election, thanks to rigid submission deadlines, witness requirements and problems with the postal system.

And the situation is getting worse--not better. According to the Congressional Research Service, at least 28% of ballots from deployed service members went uncounted last fall. The finding was part of a study released by the CRS on Wednesday.

Using data from seven states with the highest number of active duty military personnel (California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Texas), the CRS found that votes from thousands of service members were never collected, or never counted.

New York Senator Charles Schumer requested the study and he said the problem is worse than in 2000, despite a "massive effort" to improve the absentee voting process.


Maybe we missed something at the state level, but Congress has done virtually nothing to make it easier for military personnel to cast absentee ballots. As we detailed last year, Democratic Senators and Congressmen refused to support even modest reforms, including a proposal from Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy of California. Mr. McCarthy introduced a bill that would simply require the Defense Department to return completed absentee ballots by air mail, cutting delivery time from 3-4 weeks, to just a few days.

There is no record of Mr. Schumer or other Democrats offering a similar measure in the Senate.

In fact, Democratic leaders in the House refused to support a simple proposal from Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, who offered a resolution demanding that the Defense Department "do more" to help military personnel cast their absentee ballots. At one point, Mr. Blunt had a promise of support from Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader. But when it was time for action, Mr. Hoyer reneged on his pledge.

Not that we're surprised. There's a reason that military personnel find it difficult to vote, and it's rooted in partisan politics. Members of the armed services are a reliable Republican bloc; they voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2004 and 2004, and for John McCain last year. In a close election, a flood of military absentee ballots could easily swing the contest for the GOP, and that's something that Democrats want to avoid.

Beyond Senator Schumer's phony outrage, we're guessing that the CRS study won't get much play, and there won't be any serious attempts at legislative reform--at least from the Democratic side of the aisle. Meanwhile, military voters are growing increasingly frustrated with the process. By one estimate, only five percent of deployed personnel cast their ballots in the 2006 mid-term elections, and cumbersome absentee procedures are a big reason behind that appalling number.

If the senior Senator from New York is genuinely interested in making it easier for military personnel to vote, he might make a fact-finding trip to Arizona. Last year, then-Secretary of State Jan Brewer implemented an on-line voting system for state residents living overseas. Using state-of-the-art encryption, the system allowed Arizonans to cast their votes on line, safely and securely.

By all accounts, the Arizona system was a major success. There's no reason that DoD (and Congress) can't mandate similar requirements on the other 49 states. But implementing such a system nationwide would mean genuine reform--and more GOP votes--something the Democrats want to avoid.


Brian said...

I don't think the Republicans want to fix this either, since they complained about it mightily in the lead-up to the 2000 election and again in 2004. Just look at the huge spike in google hits for this at those times:

But the GOP didn't do a thing to fix it in the 6 years they had control of both the White House and Congress. Maybe so they could continue to complain about it as a reason for losing elections in the future?

So I agree that this is a serious problem that needs to be fixed, but don't try and lay it on the feet of the Democrats.

Unknown said...

At the rate of lost ballots (20%) there could have been enough to have sealed the Coleman/Franken race considering how close it was.

Unknown said...

Brian--You have a point; in previous posts, we've noted that the Bush Administration did nothing to improve the situation for military absentee voters. However, Republicans in Congress have been consistent in trying to do something, at least since 2006. Meanwhile, the Democrats are united in their inaction on the matter. The report commissioned by Schumer is nothing more than a smokescreen; there's no reason that Congress can't mandate on-line voting for military members serving overseas, using the Arizona model. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Ran Barton said...

If Arizona's system works as well as you suggest, perhaps the whole nation should look to it as a model for e-voting for all of their citizens, not just those overseas.