In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to require voters to pay a $1.50 poll tax to vote. In 2008, Americans living overseas—including members of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan—may have to fork over as much as $23.50 if they want to be sure their votes count in November.
That’s how much FedEx will be charging some overseas Americans to guarantee their absentee ballots will be delivered in time to be counted. But while $23.50 might seem like a steep price to pay for casting a ballot, the FedEx service—a joint initiative with the Overseas Vote Foundation—is actually a step in the right direction. The initiative offers steep discounts on FedEx’s normal rates, and means that Americans living abroad have at least one way to guarantee their ballots make it back home in time to be counted. That’s more than they’ve had in the past.
To date, the rate of participation of overseas voters has been abysmal—though not for a lack of trying. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in the 2006 election, almost 1 million overseas voters requested ballots, but only about a third of those were ever counted: two thirds of the uncounted ballots were returned by the postal service without reaching the voters who’d requested them, while 10 percent arrived too late to be counted. All told, in 2006 only 5.5% of the eligible voters overseas cast ballots that got counted.
Among the millions of Americans abroad who face high hurdles to voting are our men and women in uniform. Things like delays in delivering mail to combat zones and frequent transfers often make it difficult for members of the armed service to vote. Thankfully, some states have taken recent steps to make it easier for GIs stationed overseas to cast ballots. But for those risking their lives on the front lines, the chance to vote shouldn’t depend on what state they’re from.
Federal reform is needed to guarantee that those fighting to defend the right to vote have a meaningful opportunity to exercise it.
Some have proposed Internet voting for our overseas military voters, but security concerns have kept these proposals from getting off the ground. A bill has been introduced in the House and Senate that would require the Pentagon to contract with an express mail provider like FedEx to collect the troops’ absentee ballots. Thus far though, the bill, the Military Voting Protection Act of 2008, hasn’t made it out of committee.
Not surprisingly, the issue’s been politicized. Republicans complain that the Democrats aren’t supporting their efforts to collect ballots from our combat troops. The Democrats respond that there’s not any Republican support for helping veterans vote. That looks to some like strange politics in 2008, given polls that show veterans leaning strongly Republican and signs of strong support for the Democrats’ presidential nominee among active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. But making sure American veterans and combat troops can register and vote without difficulty shouldn’t be a matter of partisan politics in the first place.
It’s long past time for Congress to take action to make it easier for vets and combat troops to register and vote. The bills are there. It’s the will that’s apparently missing.