In recent elections, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have encountered substantial roadblocks in the voting process. This has been especially true of those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. To address this national embarrassment, we have introduced a bipartisan bill, the Military Voting Protection Act.
Our military service members put their lives on the line to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans. In return, it is our responsibility to support them in every way we can. The nature of the global war on terror and the high tempo of U.S. military operations - including our surge in Afghanistan - will require overseas service by our troops for the foreseeable future. It is imperative that American service members abroad be able to participate in our democratic process even as they fight to defend our democracy.
Yet the country they defend has repeatedly denied our troops one of our most sacred rights - the right to vote. During the 2006 election cycle, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, less than half of the military voters who requested absentee ballots successfully cast them. According to a 2006 report, just 59 percent of surveyed service members even knew where to obtain voting information on their installations, and just 40 percent had received assistance from their designated voting assistance officer. A recent survey of seven states with high military populations shows that the problems continued in 2008, as more than a quarter of the ballots requested by uniformed and overseas voters went uncollected or uncounted.
Our troops report many procedural hurdles when trying to participate in federal, state and local elections. Most states have inadequate processes and unreasonable timelines for transmitting blank absentee ballots to our troops, and the methods available to these service members for returning completed ballots to local election officials are slow and antiquated. Moreover, there are myriad absentee voting rules and regulations that are extremely confusing and vary widely with each state.
The process clearly is broken, and there is no excuse for not stepping up to challenge the status quo and streamline the process. We ask so much of our troops, and in return, we have given them a voting system that is perplexing, frustrating, slow and often dysfunctional. They deserve better.
The bill we introduced can help address one of largest of these procedural hurdles. The Military Voting Protection Act would give our troops a louder and clearer voice at the polls by ensuring that their completed absentee ballots are delivered back home in time to be counted and do not get lost on the way. Our bill would reduce delays in the absentee voting process by requiring the Defense Department to take a more active role in the process. The bill would require the department to be responsible for collecting completed ballots from overseas troops and then express-shipping them back to the United States in time to be counted, enabling troops to track their ballots while the ballots are in transit and confirm their delivery at local election offices.
We should pass this bipartisan bill quickly so elections officials have time to prepare for the 2010 election cycle. Meaningful reform will not come overnight, but now is the time to take up the cause of military voters. There are 18 months until the next election, which is enough time to implement significant improvements. If we fail, disenfranchisement of many more military voters could result next year.
This bill can be an important step toward solving the numerous and complex problems with our current military voting system. The Americans who answer the call to serve are national treasures, and we honor their selfless sacrifice and commitment to the defense of freedom. In the eighth year of the global war on terror, they continue to voluntarily raise their right hands to defend our nation and our freedom - which often requires immeasurable personal sacrifice by them and their loved ones.
Members of our newest “greatest generation” deserve nothing less than the same constitutional rights and individual liberties that they safeguard for their fellow citizens back home.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, is a member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the constitution. Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.