By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Keeping active duty U.S. personnel involved in the political process, retired Gunnery Sergeant Jessie Jane Duff told me, is not so much a matter of making sure they vote as it is making sure their votes count.
"A lot of military voters are told they have to get their ballots in 30 days ahead on an election if they are stationed overseas," the 20-year Marine Corps veteran said, "but the mail service that picks up and delivers those ballots is often delinquent. So their ballots often arrive late and, as a result, they're not counted."
According to a 2007 Election Assistance Commission report on the 2006 elections, 23 percent of all rejected absentee ballots sent to uniformed and overseas citizens were rejected because they were returned after deadlines stipulated by state law. Subsequent data reinforces the idea that there is a problem. A 2009 report conducted by the PEW Center on the States found that only 26 percent the absentee ballots requested by military personnel were actually cast in the 2006 election.
Since leaving the service in 2004, Duff has been a volunteer spokesman for Military Voting Rights USA, a group working to pressure Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense into making much-needed improvements in the way military ballots, particularly those that are coming from overseas, are handled.
In May, Duff told a congressional committee looking at the issue that current efforts to assist military personnel are both insufficient and unlikely to help those serving overseas, in sharp contrast to the programs in place to make sure these same personnel get their taxes filed and paid on time. "The effort to enable military to pay their taxes on time is remarkable," she told the committee. "On the other hand, the effort to enable military members' their right to vote on how those tax dollars are spent is deplorable."
Describing her experience and that of her fellow Marines, Duff told the panel "Our access to voting information was minimal and due to the nature of our work, Internet and computer access was limited. We spent hours, weeks, and even months in field operations to support training. During training cycles, there wasn't a 9 to 5 day or a 40 hour work week. Deadlines often pass before personnel realize an election is right around the corner. Delays with overseas mail often prevent absentee ballots being received and returned to the states in time to meet the deadlines."
"After I retired from the Marines, I learned there is a Federal Absentee Write In ballot available for service members to use if they don't receive their absentee ballot on time. However, information on this ballot was never provided to me during my 20 years of service. That is an appalling fact considering the Federal Absentee Write-In Ballot was created by a law enacted in 1986," she said.
What Duff and those with whom she works want, she told me, is that in addition to installing voter registration and absentee ballot request locations at each military installation, the Pentagon needed to utilize express mail to expedite ballot delivery, and provide enhanced training to voting teams that assist personnel with absentee ballots. The advantages of the express mail approach, she told me, "would allow the military ballots to get to their home precincts within four days, down from the three weeks it too often takes today."
With an express mail system, she said, military personnel would have a mechanism to track their ballots to ensure they arrived and are counted; that it would shorten the time window involved in getting the ballots in so they could conceivably vote at roughly the same time as everyone else rather than a month ahead of time; and that a new system for tracking the ballots would prevent military voters from being disenfranchised in future elections.
Duff hopes that Congress will, in time for the 2010 election, pass the Military Voting Protecting act, a piece of bi-partisan legislation offered in the House by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Dan Boren, D-Okla., that would require the Federal Voting Assistance Program to provide for the collection, expedited transportation, and tracking of the absentee ballots of military voters serving overseas.
The McCarthy-Boren legislation would also require FVAP to report back to Congress on the effectiveness of its collection and delivery system within 180 days of each general election.
Efforts to adopt an express mail system have, thus far, been blocked in Congress by some who see the perfect as the enemy of the good. They would prefer a sophisticated Internet voting system but that, some say, is years away from being perfected. Others say that pressure from big labor on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others in the congressional leadership have kept the effort from moving forward because the unions insist that non-union carriers like Federal Express not be allowed to compete for the business of delivering the ballots. For her part, Duff says she's going to keep going until her former comrades in arms have their right to vote protected in the same way that they protect everyone else's.
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