No Time to Vote

Results of the presidential election in Missouri were too close to call....

January 7, 2009

stampWell after President-elect Obama’s electoral college victory was a done deal, the results of the presidential election in Missouri were still too close to call, as election officials pored over the almost 3 million ballots cast in a race decided by about 3,000 votes. But as the tallying continued, there was one group of ballots that wasn’t being counted: those cast by members of the armed forces stationed overseas. That’s one lesson from a report issued this week by the Pew Center on the States.

The report, No Time To Vote: Challenges Facing America’s Overseas Military Voters, brings into sharp focus an inexcusable situation we’ve written about before: the significant—and sometimes insuperable—hurdles that troops voting overseas must overcome if they want their votes to count.

No Time to Vote explains that Missouri, 15 other states, and the District of Columbia simply don’t provide an opportunity for military personnel stationed overseas to have their votes counted. Factoring in the time that it takes ballots to be mailed overseas, and mailed back to election officials—not to mention, in some cases, notarized—there’s not enough time after absentee ballots are made available for service members from these states to request, receive, complete and submit their ballots.

Three more states provide just barely enough time: service members from Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Vermont can get their votes counted if everything goes smoothly, but if there are unexpected delays, they, too, risk having their votes go uncounted. And in six states, there’s only enough time for military personnel to submit their votes if they submit their completed ballots by fax or e-mail—certainly a better option than having no chance to have your ballot count, but one that introduces serious questions about these voters’ privacy.

There is no excuse for election officials to make it difficult—let alone impossible—for troops risking their lives in places like Iraq or Afganistan to have their voices heard in our democracy. Thankfully, there have been reforms in some states that made it more likely their service men and women had a meaningful opportunity to vote in 2008. But these efforts weren’t nearly broad enough.

Further reforms are needed to ensure that military personnel have sufficient time to cast ballots that count. And similar changes are also needed for civilians living overseas, who have trouble voting for many of the same reasons that affect overseas military personnel. The overall impact these of these challenges is stunningly low participation rates: in 2006, only 5.5% of the eligible overseas voters—civilian and military—cast ballots that were counted. Final figures from the 2008 election aren’t yet available, but even if the figures from 2006 were doubled or tripled, they’d still be abysmally low.

While a solution hasn’t been fully realized yet, there are a number of groups working to shine the spotlight on these important issues, and pushing for meaningful reforms. The Overseas Vote Foundation has implemented several innovative programs designed to alleviate the challenges facing overseas voters. And recently, it joined the Brennan Center, Pew, and a number of military—and veteran—service groups and concerned election officials in forming the Alliance for Military and Overseas Voting Rights. The Alliance is dedicated to ensuring and improving access to, and participation in, elections by all military and overseas citizens. It is working to ensure that the incoming Congress convenes hearings on the challenges facing overseas and military voters, and that meaningful reform legislation is introduced in both chambers of Congress. The Alliance will also work at the state level with a goal of prompting additional states to adopt laws permitting overseas voters to get their ballots electronically, saving valuable time. Finally, the Alliance will hold the new Administration accountable and ensure that it gives this important issue the attention it demands, improving federal oversight and support for overseas and military voting.

With a range of groups as broad as those in the Alliance working together on this important issue, it may be possible to significantly reduce the injustices overseas voters face by the next election cycle. Policy makers from both sides of the aisle, in Congress and the state legislatures, have no excuse not to.