Voting Obstacles Suppress Military Vote

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

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Adam Skaggs is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the author of Registering Military and Overseas Citizens to Vote.

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.