Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Disenfranchised Over There (Again)

It may be the ultimate irony. The very people who ensure our right to vote--members of the United States military--may need legal help to secure the same right for themselves.

As we've chronicled in previous posts, military personnel stationed overseas (along with civilians living abroad) are the most dis-enfranchised groups in our electorate. No one can really say how many members of the armed forces were unable to vote last November, but a survey by the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) found that one-third of Americans abroad were unable to vote last year. However, only three percent of the poll's respondents were military personnel or dependents.

Yet, no one can deny the problem exists. Even the Obama Justice Department (which has been less-than-enthusiastic in the enforcement of military voting rights) admits it took government intervention to ensure that thousands of millitary ballots were counted in 2010. The Administration claims that fewer member of the armed forces had problems with absentee voting last year than in 2008, an assertion that many in Congress agree with.

But Rick Jones, co-chairman of the Alliance for Military and Overseas Voting Rights is less sanguine. He estimates that 370,000 Americans living abroad--many of them military personnel--face "real problems" with mail delivery and other issues affecting their ability to vote.

Now, the obstacles facing military voters are finally receiving Congressional scrutiny. California Congressman Dan Lundgren, Chairman of the House Administration Committee, held hearings on the issue. According to Bart Jansen of the Gannett News Service, experts told the committee that roughly one-third of overseas troops who wanted to vote last year--couldn't.

"We've got to do better," said Mr. Lundgren, who is (obviously) has a gift for understatement. But he also deserves credit; when the House was controlled by Democrats, they consistently refused to look into the problem, or even approve simple reforms. For example, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to allow a vote on a measure introduced by California Congressman Kevin McCarthy (now the House Whip under the new Republican majority). McCarthy's bill required the Defense Department to return absentee ballots by the "fastest means available," ensuring that more of them would arrive by the submission deadline and actually count.

The root cause is pure, partisan politics. Military personnel are a large (and reliable) voting bloc for the GOP, although Democrats have made modest gains in recent years. In some states--and in some key districts--a flood of absentee ballots from armed forces members and their dependents--would favor Republican candidates and possibly tip the election for the GOP.

Further complicating the matter are various state election laws, which vary greatly in their requirements for preparing absentee ballots and getting them to troops overseas. In many cases, local election officials often claim "difficulties" in mailing out ballots, virtually ensuring the troops won't receive ballots early enough to fill them out and return them by the submission deadline. Needless to say, these "difficulties" become a tool for vote suppression, allowing Democratic officials to disallow large numbers of Republican absentee ballots.

To help remedy the problem, the Federal government passed a law that set mandatory deadlines for the mailing of absentee ballots to overseas military personnel. Additionally, some states and localities extended the deadline for receiving absentee ballots and kept counting past the usual cut-off date. But other states and municipalities refused to follow those reforms, guaranteeing that absentee ballots from many members of the armed forces would go uncounted.

In Illinois, for example, the head of state elections board said that military absentee ballots would not be counted--even if the Illinois violated federal law by sending them out late. Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock called the move "outrageous," noting that his state did manage to hand-deliver ballots to prisoners in the Cook County Jail.

Technology offers the logical solution. For several years, military voting rights advocates (along with some Republican members of Congress) have been pushing for on-line voting for the armed forces community. But DoD efforts to create such a system were cancelled seven years ago, due to "security" concerns. It is unclear if the Pentagon will revive the proposal, now that Republicans control the House of Representatives.

If the Pentagon tries to resurrect on-line voting, they won't get much support from Democrats. Many Congressmen and Senators from that party believe that an on-line voting system is still unworkable. During Tuesday's hearing, California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren said internet voting technology still isn't secure enough, citing last year's successful hacker attack on Washington, D.C.'s on-line voting system.

But Ms. Lofgren conveniently ignores successful internet voting efforts. Arizona began using such a system in 2008, allowing military personnel (and other residents living overseas) to vote on-line. The state uses 128-bit encryption in its web-based voting system, the same level of security used for on-line credit card transactions. Feedback has been positive; there are no reports of serious security breaches and more states--notably West Virginia--are launching their own internet voting systems.

While many in Congress would like to ignore the military voting issue, they may be unable to "kick the can" down the road again. Members of the armed forces are incensed over being disenfranchised--and with elected officials making critical decisions that affect their future--soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine and "Coasties" want to have their say. Another round of mass disenfranchisement may well produce a spate of lawsuits from military personnel whose ballots were rejected. When that happens, we wonder, will the Obama Justice Department side with the troops, or those election officials at the state capitals--the same ones who requested (and sometimes received) waivers from military voting laws last year.

Chairman Lundgren's hearings were an important first step. But much remains to be done in making sure that military personnel can cast their ballots from overseas locations--and those votes will actually count.

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