Friday, October 3, 2008

Military Voting Protection Act of 2008 (S 3073)

The Senate has just passed the Military Voting Protection Act of 2008 to amend the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to improve procedures for the collection and delivery of absentee ballots of absent overseas uniformed services voters.

Tom Tarantino, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, explains why this bill is important, and its limit:

"Military Overseas Voting: Help may be on the way
Our most basic charge as service member is to defend the country and its way of life. No action exemplifies the core principles of freedom more than the simple act of voting. It is our most basic right and one that we have had to fight for throughout our history. One would think that for those charged with its defense, casting a vote would be simple. Sadly, this is not the case. Many service members vote not in the district in which they are stationed, but in their home of record. The transitory lifestyle of the military makes this a common and necessary practice, and local municipalities generally have effective procedures in place to accommodate its constituents serving around the country. However, for those serving overseas the process is difficult, and for those deployed overseas, the process is practically impossible to navigate without the help and support of the DOD.

In 2000, I was deployed to Bosnia during the Presidential Primary Elections. Knowing beforehand that I would be deployed, I applied for an absentee ballot. As I did not know where I would be stationed, I had it sent to my parents thinking that they would be able to send it to me, and I could return it in time. As you can imagine, this was not the case. The ballot took two weeks to get to me at Camp Tuzla, another two weeks for it to return to California, and it missed the deadline. For all of us who have been deployed, we all know and accept the realities of the Military postal system. By and large, the system works pretty well, but it is near impossible to deal with anything time sensitive. In Bosnia, the system was unpredictable. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the system is functional, but chaotic. Clearly, there needs to be a special emphasis and assistance from the DOD in order to ensure that those who are fighting for our freedoms are able to cast their vote and be counted.

Currently the DOD uses the Federal Voter Assistance Program (FVAP), which provides a 460 page instruction manual detailing the step by step procedures for completing and sending the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA). The FPCA is a combined voter registration and absentee ballot application that was created from the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voter Act of 1986. As states have a variety of different requirements, the “catch all” FPCA is difficult to fill out and a significant portion end up getting rejected by the states. According to a Pew Research study, 40,000 military FPCAs were rejected in 2006 due to some error in filling out state requirements. Furthermore, units Voter Assistance Officers are not given proper training on the difference between local registration and the FPCA.

In 2004 I was appointed as the Voter Assistance Officer (VAO) for my Troop. The only information or guidance I received was the memo assigning me the extra duty. Being responsible, I set out on my own to find resources and pathways to get my soldiers registered either locally or in their home state. I did locate the FVAP, and made attempts to get every soldier that was interested properly registered. In 2004 this was not as easy of a task as it is today. In garrison, this program works, as it relies on the predictability of the US. Mail. However, the Pew study shows that in 2004 VAOs reached only 50%of military voters. Furthermore, states require a myriad of different requirements that lead to confusion and error when filling out the FPCA. The Federal Voter Assistance Program is assigned the responsibility to register overseas voters, yet does not have the authority to affect and change the systems needed to make registration happen.

On October 1, the Senate passed S 3073, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. This act requires the Secretary of Defense to establish procedures for collecting absentee ballots of military overseas voters in elections for federal office; and delivering such ballots to the appropriate state election officials. Additionally, it mandates that the delivery must take place prior to the polls closing and authorized the DOD to use express mail and contract delivery services to ensure local receipt of ballots.

This Act takes care of the biggest and most obvious flaw with Federal Voter Assistance Program. As anyone who has been deployed will tell you, it is impossible to plan for anything time sensitive through the mail from a combat zone. In 2006 86% of the FPCAs were sent via the mail, and with the military postal system average round trip being 24-36 days to and from Iraq and Afghanistan there is little to no room for error. Given that most service members transfer units every two to three years, and are deployed every 18- 24 months; most addresses are obsolete by the next election cycle. In 2006 this resulted in 35,000 military and overseas citizen absentee ballots being returned to local election officials as undeliverable. By requiring the DOD to ensure the safe and timely passage of military ballots to their home districts each election cycle, service members are one step closer toward ensuring that the vote that they fight to defend gets counted. Additionally, by not distinguishing between FPCAs and locally obtained election materials, the DOD allows for a much smoother process in requesting and returning the service member’s absentee ballot.

S 3073 is not a complete solution. While it does provide a greater level of assistance to the service members in ensuring timely delivery of election materials, it does not directly address the variance in state registration requirements, nor does it provide the FVAP broader authorities in reducing barriers for military voters. S3073 is a good first step, and one that I feel is long since overdue." ... Tom Tarantino.

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