- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

A bipartisan group of House members yesterday introduced a bill to ensure that votes cast by overseas military personnel are counted by making it tougher to discount ballots without postmarks and setting standards for receiving votes.

"When proud young men and women are willing to put their lives on the line and are deployed to the far reaches of the globe, we cannot allow their fundamental right to vote be taken away because of a simple technicality," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, California Republican.

Most of the Florida election fallout focused on disenfranchised black voters. However, 1,500 military and overseas ballots were not counted in the 2000 election, said Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry, Texas Republican.

"You can't ask someone to take up arms in defense of our country and then deny them a ballot when it comes time to vote," Mr. Thornberry said.

During the 36-day Florida recount, Democrats challenged hundreds of absentee ballots for lacking postmarks, a state law. The Pentagon conceded some envelopes were not stamped, and President Bush's 537-vote victory highlighted problems in the military absentee voting system.

Dismissing votes cast by members of the military is "immoral," said Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

"Our troops and their families put their lives on the line every day to protect the freedoms of this great nation; the least we can do is protect their right to vote," Mr. Johnson said.

The bill is endorsed by numerous veterans organizations, including the National Military/Veterans Alliance, Reserve Officers Association and National Association for Uniformed Services.

"When our young people are defending our country and its free institutions, the least we can do is to make sure that they are able to enjoy the rights they are being asked to fight to preserve," said Gen. Dick Murray, spokesman for the National Association for Uniformed Services.

A report by the Congressional Research Service said more than 40 percent of troops on active duty are residents of states that have no legislation protecting their right to vote in elections.

The measure would require states to find convincing evidence of fraud before discounting ballots because they lack postmarks in federal elections.

It also sets a standard time frame of 30 days for sending and receiving absentee military ballots, and gives military members and their families guaranteed residency to vote in federal, state and local elections.

In addition, it directs the Defense Secretary to update voting methods using the latest technology.

"It's the 21st century, and our elections should reflect that," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat.

Several similar measures are moving through the Senate, including one supported by Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, the bill also calls for polling places on military bases.

"This bill will help prevent a repeat of the 2000 election, where military ballots were unfairly scrutinized in a partisan attempt to silence their voice," Mr. Allard said in a statement.

Mr. Thornberry hopes to attach the House legislation to this year's defense authorization bill. One Senate leadership aide said memories of the Florida debacle are still fresh in the minds of Congress, and members on both sides of the aisle are "committed" to moving election reform this year.

Lawmakers said glitches in the military voting system have been pervasive since the Truman administration. In 1952, Mr. Truman asked Congress to fix voting procedures so troops fighting in the Korean War could vote.

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