Concerns voiced over protection of soldiers’ voting rights

As the election season gears up and the races grow more contentious, the aphorism “every vote counts” will become evermore consequential.

Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress has purportedly worked to guarantee that every eligible American has the right to vote. This has not been the case, however, for our men and women in uniform.

The Election Assistance Commission reports that during the 2008 election, 17,000 American soldiers fighting overseas had their votes thrown out. According to J. Christian Adams, a former attorney for the Department of Justice’s Voting Rights Division, that year only an estimated 17% of deployed troops actually had their votes counted.

Election officials failed to count the remaining 83% because either the soldier never received a ballot, sent it in too late, never requested a ballot, lost the ballot in the mail, or did not complete the paperwork sufficiently. Adams also points to unwieldy voting regulations as another reason so few deployed military personnel had a voice in the last election. For example, the Minnesota requirement that the county notary notarize the ballot in order for it to count. “A soldier in a fox hole in Afghanistan is not going to have his county’s notary nearby,” Adams noted.

In October 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Military Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act — a piece of legislation which aimed to ensure troops overseas have their votes counted — into law. Most significantly, the law eliminates such obstacles as the aforementioned Minnesota rule and requires states to dispatch absentee ballots to soldiers overseas 45 days before an election to ensure that they have enough time to receive, complete and return their votes. A point of contention with the new law, however, is a provision which allows states to request a waiver to exempt them from certain requirements in the event of “hardship.”

Prior to the MOVE Act, the government had no set number of days required for states to send out absentee ballots. Bureaucrats at the Department of Justice interpreted “reasonable” time to mean 30 days. This interpretation prevailed despite the fact that the Military Postal Service Agency said 60 days would be a far more accurate amount of time. Indeed, according to the Election Assistance Commission, in 2008, 43.7 % of rejected ballots were not counted because they missed the deadline, an outcome which might have been averted with a longer lead-time.

Captain (Ret.) Samuel Wright, Director of the Service Members Law Center for the Reserve Officers Association, explained the practical implications of this to The Daily Caller. “It’s not a huge leap to say that if it takes 20 days for the ballot to get to you in Afghanistan and it takes twenty days to get back and they don’t mail the ballot until 25 days before the election, that your right to vote has been violated.”

Though the MOVE Act goes into effect this coming election cycle, some have raised concerns that the Department of Justice will not be especially focused on enforcing the new law. Adams says that this concern comes down to bureaucratic inertia. “The people who are overseeing this have been in charge for a long time. And they were arguing, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that only 30 days was necessary for a ballot transmit to go out and come back…The fruits of that argument was 17,000 canceled votes,” he said.