In the 2008 general election, as in all other recent elections, a substantial minority (in some places a majority) of the military personnel who tried to vote by absentee ballot were disenfranchised through no fault of their own. Because of late primaries, ballots access lawsuits, and other problems, the printing and mailing of unmarked absentee ballots is all too often delayed until just a few days before Election Day. Military personnel at sea or in places like Afghanistan simply do not have sufficient time to receive their ballots, mark them, and return them on time.
There are three time-consuming steps in absentee voting. First, the voter’s request for an absentee ballot must travel from the voter to an election official. Second, the unmarked absentee ballot must travel from the election official to the voter. Finally, the marked ballot must travel from the voter back to the election official. It can take weeks for a deployed service member to complete these steps. But if a deployed service member is allowed to vote through secure electronic means, he can complete this process in seconds.
The problem is that secure electronic means have not been authorized, except in a handful of places. As a nation, we are still conducting absentee voting in much the same way that we did during World War II and the Korean War: by physically shipping pieces of paper across oceans and continents. In our military, classified information is transmitted every day by secure electronic means. In commerce, billions of dollars change hands electronically every day, without loss. If electronic means are secure enough for our nation’s most important secrets and for huge sums of money, why is it not possible for our nation’s service members to vote in a way that will ensure that their ballots will be counted?
In June 1952, 13 months after I was born, the U.S. House of Representatives conducted hearings on the absentee voting rights of soldiers fighting in the Korean War. The Honorable C.G. Hall, Secretary of State of Arkansas and President of the National Association of Secretaries of States (NASS), testified that most military personnel would likely be disenfranchised in the 1952 presidential election. Because of late primaries, ballot access lawsuits, and other problems, in many cases local election officials would not have absentee ballots printed and available to be mailed until a few days before Election Day.
The 1952 congressional report on absentee voting for deployed military personnel includes a copy of a letter to Congress dated March 28, 1952, from President Harry S. Truman. In the letter, Truman called upon the states to fix the absentee voting problems and called upon Congress to enact temporary federal legislation for the 1952 presidential election. “Any such legislation by Congress should be temporary,” Truman wrote, “since it should be possible to make all the necessary changes in State laws before the congressional elections of 1954.”
Well, it did not work out that way. The Korean War ground to an inconclusive halt in 1954, and this issue dropped from our national radar screen until 2000, when late-arriving military absentee ballots played a crucial role in determining the outcome of Florida’s excruciatingly close presidential election.