Some Military Personnel Denied Fair Chance to Vote

America’s servicemen – sons and daughters — serving away from home in our Armed Forces must vote by absentee ballot, if they are to vote at all.  Johnny and Jane can’t come marching home to vote, because they are serving far away — in many nations and states where they don’t live — and can’t just abandon their duty to return home to vote. The Global War on Terrorism is likely to last a generation or more, but better that the horrors of war be over there than back here, like on that awful Tuesday morning in September 2001.

It is shameful that many counties in the Commonwealth of Virginia have neglected or chosen to not give Virginians serving away from home a fair chance to vote this year.

America’s entire military establishment, including the National Guard and Reserve, amounts to less than three-fourths of 1% of our population, and it is these few folks who stand between us and a repeat of September 11.  On August 20, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Royal Air Force, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”  Those eloquent words apply equally to the U.S. military today.

There are three time-consuming steps in absentee voting. The absentee ballot request must travel from the voter to the election official. The unmarked ballot must travel from the election official to the voter, and the marked ballot must return from the voter to the election official.  Each of these steps can take weeks if snail mail must be used, but only seconds if secure electronic means were authorized.  If we continue to rely on the mail, the overseas military voter needs at least 45 days for the absentee ballot to travel to the voter, be marked, and return to the election official.  Because of late primaries, ballot access lawsuits, and other problems, local election officials frequently do not have ballots printed and ready to mail until just a few days before the election.

The sad fact is that electronic means have not been authorized. In our military, secret information is transmitted safely every day by secure electronic means.  In commerce, billions of dollars change hands electronically every day, without loss. If electronic means are safe enough for classified information and huge sums of money, why is it necessary that deployed military personnel continue to rely on snail mail for absentee voting?

Under a federal law called the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), military personnel and their family members (as well as civilians outside our country) are eligible to vote by absentee process in primary, general, special, and runoff elections for federal office. UOCAVA gives the U.S. Attorney General the responsibility to sue any state that violates this law by failing to give them a reasonable opportunity to receive and return their ballots in time to be counted.  The usual remedy sought and obtained is a court-ordered extension on the deadline for the return of ballots mailed in from outside the U.S.  Until 2008, every state that has been sued has readily agreed to this remedy, not wanting the state’s sons and daughters in our military to be disenfranchised.

Under a 1982 federal court order that remains in effect, Florida is required to count for federal offices absentee ballots received up to ten days after Election Day, if those ballots are from outside the U.S. (including but not limited to Army Post Office and Fleet Post Office addresses).  In 2000, George Bush picked up a net gain of 739 votes among the 2,500 overseas ballots counted under this court order.  You will recall that in the final count Bush carried Florida by just 537 votes.  These late-arriving overseas ballots literally decided the outcome of the Presidential election.

In the 2008 general election, several of Virginia’s counties and independent cities were late in mailing out ballots, and the Attorney General brought suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections (VSBE) headed by an appointee of a governor who is now the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  Unlike other state election officials that have been sued under similar circumstances, the VSBE has fought this lawsuit tooth and nail, and the lawsuit remains pending. The court has rejected the argument that the lawsuit is moot, in that the number of ballots at issue is not sufficient to change the outcome for any federal office in Virginia last year.  The brave young men and women of our Armed Forces have the right to have their ballots counted, whether or not those ballots determine the outcome.  Moreover, the lawsuit must continue because this problem is likely to recur.

In late September 2009, the VSBE stated in a brief filed in court:  “There is no federal statute that requires States to mail absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters a minimum number of days before an election.  The Complaint in Intervention is based entirely on a ‘determination’ by the Federal Voting Assistance Program of the Department of Defense that such ballots be mailed at least 30 days before an election, and a ‘recommendation’ that States allow 45 days for round-trip mailing of absentee ballots.”  The VSBE is arguing that Virginia’s election officials are under no obligation to ensure that military personnel receive their ballots in time to vote.

I am most upset with the VSBE, but let me throw some kudos to the General Registrar of my own county.  On September 18, 2009 (46 days before the November 3 gubernatorial election) Arlington County mailed out absentee ballots to all military and overseas voters who had applied by that date.  The county that includes Arlington National Cemetery understands that freedom is not free and goes out of its way for military personnel.  


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