Exclusive: Ensuring Voters’ Rights for Those Who Ensure Our Right to Vote

by MARGARET CALHOUN HEMENWAY May 23, 2009
This weekend we will honor the service men and women who gave their lives for our country. It’s an appropriate time to renew efforts to ensure that members of the military who serve overseas can exercise the most precious right of citizenship: the right to vote.
 
A Senate hearing last week addressed this chronically neglected topic – the hurdles faced by military voters overseas to meet balloting deadlines, especially those serving in combat zones. As Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, correctly noted, there is typically a large push on military voting right before elections, but then the issue is forgotten. He pledged, “Not this year.” The problem is “more severe than most people realize,” Mr. Schumer said, with as many as 27 percent of those requesting ballots resulting in their not being counted and many more not receiving ballots requested. Bob Carey, a witness for an advocacy group for veterans, National Defense Committee, who testified at the hearing, provided an even more compelling statistic: One-third of military voters who requested ballots in 2006 could not successfully cast their ballots, largely because of the slowness of mail delivery to overseas postings.
 
Unknown to most Members of Congress, a simple solution to military voting was discovered five years ago. In the spring of 2004, a pilot program was devised by a civilian inventor named Henry Dreifus, who during the Clinton Administration, won a Pentagon contract for the “common access card,” a high-tech ID widely used in the Pentagon and issued to service members deploying overseas. The DoD pilot set up a system of electronic ballot delivery (based on secure banking system software such as employed in ATMs) where a soldier could simply log-in, download and print his official ballot. The military voter returned the ballot via regular mail.
 
This program was simple and effective, but DoD refused to inform local election officials about it until the end of September, when it was too late for them to implement the program fully. Before this pilot, military voters had to rely on snail mail for every leg of the voting process: requesting the ballot by mail, receiving the ballot by mail and finally, executing the voted ballot by mail. For a service member forward deployed in, say Kabul or Kandahar, or for one injured and recuperating in Landstuhl, Germany, this system was doomed to failure.
 
Remarkably, the FVAP office (Federal Voting Assistance Program, housed at DoD by Executive Order) did little to publicize this breakthrough for military voters.  
 
FVAP had earlier advocated for an internet-based pilot program, spending $20 million, only to invite a handful of skeptics in as advisors who torpedoed it over security concerns. These dissenters alleged that the program would be subject to hacking, massive vote-swapping and vote-buying. After the criticisms were aired in the Washington Post, the Pentagon canceled the program in 2004. 
 
The ‘04 electronic ballot retrieval pilot cost a mere $500,000, with 108 counties in nine States agreeing to participate. At the conclusion of the election, 28 of those counties had received ballot requests, processed them and uploaded ballots. Voters downloaded a total of 17 ballots.
 
The website (www.myballot.mil) was constructed, despite bureaucratic foot-dragging, in a matter of weeks, but the project fell prey to the classic syndrome of “not invented here” and for being an inexpensive alternative that exposed FVAP’s internet experiment as a costly and insecure flop. 
 
Two years later, Sen. Conrad Burns, facing re-election in Montana, made a vigorous effort to reform military voting, encouraged by an aide who had been a voting assistance officer for the Marine Corps. The FVAP web site, the aide learned, had removed any reference to the inexpensive and successful ‘04 pilot, while the costly, jettisoned internet pilot remained prominently featured on its website.
 
To make matters worse, Pentagon leadership reflected bureaucratic hostility to reform. While transformation was embraced rhetorically at the top, below, in many ways, large and small, it was subject to resistance. In an internal meeting with all military services represented and officials presiding from the Office of Personnel and Readiness, Sen. Burns’ push on military voting was raised. Sen. Burns had initiated a bipartisan letter, signed by Democrat Sens. John Kerry and Dick Durbin, along with other Republican Senators, to urge DoD try to avoid the problems faced by voters in Florida in 2000 and to fix military voting. (A memo written by Democrat lawyer Mark Herron in 2000 resulted in challenges, on technical grounds, to 2,400 absentee ballots in battleground state Florida, mostly those mailed by soldiers overseas.) As two attendees relayed to the author, a top-level official at this meeting cynically dismissed Sen. Burns’2006 efforts (and the bipartisan Senate letter) as “just one Senator in a tough race.” 
 
In 2008, Sen. John Cornyn and then-Sen. Wayne Allard again raised difficulties faced by military voters. Once again, FVAP objected to legislative meddling, and a watered-down bill focused mainly on speeding up delivery of ballots by snail mail, was adopted in the Senate, but died in conference with the House.
 
Sen. Schumer announced at the hearing that he and Sen. Ben Nelson had written the Department of Defense to call for the installation of a new director of FVAP. That step perhaps is the single most important reform to ensure that military ballots are back in the states in time to be counted. Without strong leadership and advocacy at FVAP, which has the day-to-day responsibility in the federal government for voting, well-meaning, but sporadic efforts by Congress to modernize military voting will continue to be thwarted. Meanwhile, FVAP must take advantage of proven technologies to end the effective disenfranchisement of thousands of men and women serving in uniform who every day risk their lives to ensure the defense of America’s freedoms.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Margaret Calhoun Hemenway spent fifteen years on Capitol Hill, in both the House and Senate and five years as a White House appointee serving President Bush at both DoD and NASA.
 
 
 

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