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Election Commission Does Not Go Far Enough to Help Military Voters

by Wendy Innes, published

Presidential Commission on Election Administration submitted its report to the president this month, detailing a number of recommendations to improve the voting experience for all eligible voters. The report specifically detailed some recommendations for military and overseas civilian voters. Unfortunately, those recommendations don't go far enough to ensure that all eligible voters are able to vote.

"The Commission's focus in this report remained resolutely on the voter," the report said. "We discovered, as officials, experts, and members of the public from across the country testified, that voters' expectations are remarkably uniform and transcend differences of party and political perspective."

People from all walks of life want secure, efficient, and fair elections.

While there are no "one size fits all" answer when it comes to the challenges that voters face, the report found that most jurisdictions did have similar concerns and problems and their recommendations address these issues.

The commission issued the following key recommendations;

  • Modernization of the registration process through continued expansion of online voter registration and expanded state collaboration in improving the accuracy of voter lists.
  • Measures to improve access to the polls through expansion of the period of voting before the traditional Election Day, and through the selection of suitable, well-equipped polling place facilities, such as schools.
  • State-of-the-art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places, including tools the Commission is publicizing and recommending for the efficient allocation of polling place resources.
  • Reforms of the standard-setting and certification process for new voting technology to address soon-to-be antiquated voting machines and to encourage innovation and the adoption of widely available off-the-shelf technologies.

These are good across-the-board recommendations for all voters. As the report made clear, the challenges that need to be addressed for military voters are the same as those faced by domestic absentee voters, but they are compounded by voter location and distance from their home polling place. The location of polls and the age of the voting machines is less of a concern than whether or not voters receive and are able to return their ballots.

Everyone can benefit from the increased availability of online resources, though there remain some valid concerns regarding fraud. For military and overseas voters, the Internet is a vital link at election time. However, there is a huge disparity between states as to what online resources are available. Some districts offer military and overseas voters specific information on their sites, while others offer none at all.

In the past, the Federal Postcard Application (FPCA) and the Federal Write in Absentee Ballot (FWAB) served as effective stop gap measures when state methods failed. But, it's unclear how long they will remain an option for military and overseas voters. The MOVE Act of 2009 mandated that these documents be honored for one year to allow states to come into compliance with the act, though some states opted to honor the documents for 2 years or longer.

Undoubtedly, the biggest improvement to come out of the implementation of the MOVE Act was the 45-day requirement (states are required to send ballots to military members and overseas voters no less than 45 days before the election). To meet this requirement, several states are now registering voters and allowing them to request absentee ballots online or by fax, but the ballots must still be returned by mail, using mail systems that are often unreliable and extremely slow.

While the report from the commission offered several good suggestions to improve the voting experience for all voters and acknowledged the challenges that military and overseas voters face, it stopped short of recommending the one substantive change that would remove the most barriers: online voting.

The report says that online voting is not yet feasible due to security issues, but this is not necessarily true. For years, the military and various embassies and consulates around the world have had secure networks for communicating with their various command chains at home. Since the technology is already available to the very people who need it, it's possible that ballots can be submitted via a secure network connection. This may be possible through the voting assistance officer, who is available at every base around the world, or a civilian counterpart for overseas voters. This would virtually eliminate the problem of ballots being lost or arriving late.

While it may never be perfect, these practices can help significantly reduce the barriers that military and overseas voters face in exercising their most fundamental right.

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