Spotlight: Military Voting Rights Project

“It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves under the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

Talking heads smug in their vapidity and writers whose greatest physical fear is carpal tunnel syndrome should consider acknowledging more often the guarantors of their freedoms. The National Defense Committee, which posted the above quotation on its website, has launched an effort to guarantee a freedom often denied to military men: The freedom to chose America’s political leaders by exercising the right to vote.

“The disenfranchisement rate for military absentee voters is 40%,” said Sam Wright, director of the committee’s Military Voting Rights Project. “And about 90% of active-duty military vote absentee.” Wright explained that servicemen move around so much that they usually vote absentee throughout their careers. Those deployed to remote locations–such as the 130,000 currently in Iraq–face the greatest challenges, he said.

The problem is slow and unreliable mail delivery. State and country election officials send out absentee ballots 30 to 45 days before an election, and these ballots usually must be postmarked by election day or be received within a week or two after the election to be counted. With mail delivery to Iraq taking 30 days each way or more–assuming that the mail gets delivered at all–our young men and women in the sands of Iraq might not have their votes counted this fall.

Wright, a lawyer and captain in the Naval Reserve, has a three-pronged approach to enfranchising as many servicemen as possible this year, especially those who are putting their lives on the line. “We are encouraging early applications for absentee ballots so that the military members get the ballots as early as possible,” he said. “We’ve chosen July 4 as the date by which we want people to apply for their ballots. We are also working to improve mail delivery times overseas and trying to get state and county officials to give more time to have military absentee ballots counted. We’d like to cut the disenfranchisement rate to 20%.”

Wright said that he believed that the long-term solution to military absentee balloting is electronic voting, which would eliminate not only the vagaries of the mail but make voting simple, without the hoops that absentee voters must now jump through–and often don’t jump through successfully, thus depressing their vote. The Pentagon canceled an electronic voting pilot project this year due to concerns about the security of online voting.

“The Department of Defense has SIPRNET, which is a worldwide intranet for classified information,” Wright said. He suggested that military members could vote via this system, “with written ballots mailed in to serve as verification.”

Military absentee voting is an especially serious issue this year, when so many Americans in uniform are serving in remote locations, but the problem of military voting is a perennial one.

“Believe it or not, we still have some arcane voting rules and regulations and laws in this country that in this, the new millennium, in 2003, still in and of themselves prevent some American military personnel from being able to vote. . .,” wrote Rear Adm. Jim Carey (Ret.), chairman of the National Defense Committee, in a May 30, 2003, column. “Case in point: American nuke submarines go on 60-day patrols and with the Blue/Gold Team arrangement, half of our submarines are at sea on any given day. The maximum advance time that any county clerk will mail out a military absentee voter ballot is 45 days. Figure it out. The math just doesn’t work.”

Sen. Kit Bond (R.-Mo.) is also trying to focus attention on this issue. “With our troops fighting for freedom abroad, we need to do everything we can to ensure their votes are counted on election day,” he said March 3. “With only months left until election day this must be a top priority. Mail delays not only deny our troops the fundamental right to vote, but also take their toll on troop morale.”

“I’ve been working on this issue for 23 years,” said Wright, who noted that “225,000 active-duty military claim legal residence in Florida.”


The Military Voting Rights Project may be reached at the National Defense Committee, 1201 S. Court House Rd., Suite 735, Arlington, Va. 22204 (703-486-4247).