Voting Obstacles Suppress Military Vote

Military voters register at a 20 percent lower rate than the population.

July 27, 2009

Originally posted at U.S. News and World Report.

Last week, the Senate approved a bipartisan overhaul of the absentee voting process used by members of the armed forces, their families, and overseas civilian voters. The move was an important and long overdue reform: The current voting system is broken, and if they want their votes to count, members of the military must overcome significant hurdles most Americans never have to face. The status quo, in the words of Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, is "a national disgrace."

It is unacceptable that American citizens who dedicate themselves to defending our democracy often can't participate in that democracy. But, as a report just issued by the Brennan Center for Justice makes clear, it happens all too frequently. In the 2006 election, for example, voter turnout was nearly 40 percent for the general population, but only 20.4 percent for military voters. The registration rate for military voters is almost 20 percentage points lower than it is for the general population, and military personnel reported having almost twice as many registration problems in 2008 as non-military voters, according to a widely respected national survey. These problems stem largely from a 19th-century registration system that requires voters—including military voters—to submit old-fashioned paper registration forms every time they are relocated.

The landmark legislation the Senate just passed, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, is a good step forward. Championed by Sens. Chuck Schumer, Saxby Chambliss, and dozens of other sponsors from both parties, the bill promises to make it easier for military and overseas voters to obtain registration applications, ballots, and other election materials in a timely manner. It requires states to send these voters absentee ballots at least 45 days before an election, so they will have sufficient time to complete and return them. And it mandates that states provide election forms and absentee ballots electronically, which should significantly reduce delays involved with "snail" mail.

The bill, called the MOVE Act, was tacked on to the Senate's version of the 2010 defense authorization bill on a voice vote, with widespread support, and though the House bill doesn't currently have an analogous provision, it appears likely that the House will add a parallel amendment to its authorization bill. Unfortunately, even with the bill's welcome reforms, the voting system for military and overseas voters would remain flawed.

Even with increased access to registration materials, the onus would remain on military voters, many of whom are stationed far from their state election offices, to ensure that they are properly registered. More importantly, they would still be responsible for ensuring that their voter registration data is updated and accurate—every time they are relocated—so that election officials have up-to-date mailing addresses to send absentee ballots and other election materials. The need to continually update voting records can be a serious burden, especially for voters subject to regular redeployments, and who are often far away from election officials back home.

The good news is that there is a broader, and readily achievable, solution that will ensure that all Americans, including those who risk their lives to defend our democracy, have a meaningful right to vote: modernizing our voter registration system.

Modernization of the voter registration system would significantly decrease the registration problems military voters face, while simultaneously reducing many of the problems associated with absentee balloting. Under the system of voter registration modernization that the Brennan Center has proposed, state governments would automatically register all voting-eligible citizens captured in other government lists, including military personnel and their families, and other voters living overseas. Election officials would track voters' address changes, and update their records regularly, to ensure up-to-date contact information. Voters would be given tools to confirm registration information, and correct it when necessary. Overall, a 21st-century registration system would leverage existing lists and technology to ensure that all Americans—including those who travel to defend our democracy—are registered to vote, accurately, and with up-to-date information.

To register military voters, state election officials should use data maintained by the Department of Defense's Defense Manpower Data Center, which already maintains a central database that identifies and tracks these voters. The center already shares information with other government agencies for the purpose of administering benefits and entitlements, and it does so without compromising the security of its records. The same could be done to ensure that military personnel and others can vote, and aren't disenfranchised because of bureaucratic inefficiencies. Only basic identifying information would need to be shared to ensure military voters were registered, so no sensitive information on deployments would be put at risk.

Is this feasible? Definitely. A companion report just released by the Brennan Center shows that the agencies responsible for registering draft-eligible men and for recruiting military personnel already use this kind of data sharing. Most young men registered with the Selective Service were automatically registered using information from other government lists. If we can automatically register voting age men for the draft, we can certainly register them to vote. That is what many other major democracies do; we should expect no less from the United States.

Most of the problems that impede military and overseas citizens from voting stem from the voter registration system and, in particular, the inability of our outmoded system to handle a highly mobile population located far from home. This is simply unacceptable. Fortunately, the solution is close at hand. We must reform the voter registration system so that our men and women in uniform are guaranteed the right to participate in our elections. We owe them no less.