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Voting Obstacles Suppress Military Vote

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

  • Adam Skaggs
Published: July 28, 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.