Voting is one of the most important rights of every U.S. citizen, but one which every citizen does not exercise. This has always baffled me. Much of the world is still fighting – and bleeding – for the right to have a voice in who will be their leaders. Our servicemen and women are currently battling those who deny this right to the female half of a population and want to severely curtail that right among the men. All the while many of our active duty personnel are fighting to exercise this right for themselves while they are off in a distant land.
If you are active duty military and stationed in other than your home state and voting precinct, your only option to help decide who will be your next Commander-in-Chief is to file for an absentee ballot. One would think there would be a simple, straightforward process by which to do this, but the sad truth is the process is anything but simple. In addition, how one goes about this is determined by each state, and the rules vary from state to state.
The easy answer of having the Defense Department facilitate a single system is not a workable solution because adding another layer of bureaucracy to the process would just makes things worse. As a result, it is up to each individual to figure out the process and jump through the hoops of their home state.
For example, a soldier may be stationed at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky but actually live off base, literally on the other side of the road from the base but be in Clarksville, Tennessee. Yet, this soldier is from Illinois and that address in Illinois is considered his home address on all his military paperwork and documentation.
Now, the soldier is being deployed to Afghanistan. He knows his unit is going sometime in the late summer or early fall, but he won’t know the exact date of departure more than a week or so in advance. Once in-country in Afghanistan, it may be several more weeks until he is at his duty station, meaning he does not have an address until then. The election is coming up and he now has less than two months to get his absentee ballot. Sounds workable, until we look at how the process goes in Illinois.
The first stop is the Illinois State Board of Elections website. On its home page it states the first date to file for an absentee ballot is 9/27/2012 and all mail in ballots must be received by 11/1/2012. This information is followed by a hyperlink stating “Additional provisions and requirements apply to Military and Overseas Citizens.” However, as of this writing, the hyperlink is broken and no further information is available.
A second search found a page, but it hasn’t been updated since 2010, as evidenced by the content. This second page does give information about MOVE, the Illinois Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment site, where it is explained that you must qualify under one of two categories:
1. You must be a uniformed United States military service member or a family member of such service member. (Active duty members of the Armed Forces, Merchant Marines, Public Health Service, NOAA and their family members)
2. You must be an overseas United States citizen residing outside the territorial limits of the U.S. (Citizens who are living outside the U.S. for work, school or other reasons)
So far, sounds good, right? But here is where things get tricky. First, you have to create an account with MOVE, then prove you qualify by mailing in the required paperwork, wait for a response, then submit your request for an absentee ballot, wait for the ballot to be sent to you, then fill it out and have it received by the election board by November 1st. All of this is required to register, even if you have previously registered and even voted in Illinois. With an average age of twenty one, this is the first election in which most enlisted rank soldiers can vote, meaning there will be further proofs of address, etc. required.
As anyone who has tried to send a letter to someone stationed overseas will tell you, mail often takes upwards of two or three weeks to get to a soldier, particularly when they first arrive at their overseas duty station. While the military recognizes that getting mail and packages into the hands of soldiers is an important part of morale, simple logistics state that personnel and supplies take precedence on the planes going overseas. The same goes for moving supplies on the ground and the farther one is stationed from the primary point of entry, the longer it will take to get a personal letter or package through. There is only so much space on those trucks and transport vehicles and just like on the planes, personnel and supplies come first.
The biggest fly in the ointment is the most commonly accepted or requested proof of address is a utility bill, bank statement or other piece of mail that was received at that permanent address, but it must be current, generally meaning less than 30 days old. Since the soldier has not lived at the address in the past thirty days and has been receiving mail at either the post address in Kentucky or their domicile address in Tennessee, this can be a problem. The easy answer is to send a letter addressed to themselves at their home of record, usually a letter asking their family to send all the required documents to the Election Board.
Once the documents are receive by the Board, if they are all in order, accepted and no further paperwork is needed, the Election Board will send out an absentee ballot, a process that often takes weeks. They are busy — after all, it is election season. When the ballot is finally received by the soldier, if it is not returned and received by the deadline, the vote will not be counted. And this is the improved system.
I’ve heard it said that all this is a maneuver by Democrats to keep the approximately 1.2 million active duty soldiers from voting Republican. There are two primary problems with that conspiracy theory. The first is the assumption that all or even the majority of our service men and women are Republican, which is simply not the case. Party affiliation among the Armed Forces is as split as it is among the civilian population. The second flaw with this idea is that if it were true, Republicans would be screaming to make sure soldiers had a viable opportunity to vote, and that is certainly not happening.
Both parties and their candidates have been disturbingly quiet on this issue, focusing instead on the arguments surrounding the idea of requiring photo IDs for in person voting. The closest the military question comes to being addressed is as a supportive argument against the idea by way of noting the existence of a mail-in vote, as is exercised by active duty military and citizens living abroad.
It’s more than just a shame it is so difficult it is a near impossibility for soldiers in a war zone to vote, it borders on denying soldiers their Constitutional rights. The very people who are literally putting their lives on the line for the ideals of Democracy, who have sworn an oath to uphold, defend and protect the Constitution are effectively barred from exercising the right to cast their ballot, to voice their opinion on who will be the leaders of the country they’ve sworn to defend.
I don’t have the answers, and at this late hour, I don’t know that any answers could be found and enacted in time to matter for this election. I do have a suggestion though, one that is so simple and straightforward that I’m sure I must be missing something incredibly obvious.
The military has a registered, official home address for every service member, active duty or reserve, deployed overseas or on a base somewhere here in the states. Why not have that paperwork or any piece of it be sufficient proof of residency for the state election boards? Then, all a soldier would have to do is send a copy of that piece of paper to the election board, and request an absentee ballot. There would be no need for a delay on the part of the board, as this is paperwork issued, signed and attested to by the United States government. An absentee ballot could be mailed out as fast as the APO/FPO address could be written on an envelope.
Of course, mail in both directions will still be subject to the delays that are inherent in sending letters and packages to war zones, but weeks would be cut out and the process would be streamlined. There still would be no guarantee that every soldier would be able to get their ballot, fill it out and return it by the deadline. Those who choose to put on our Nation’s uniform are used to living without guarantees, including any guarantee they will live to see if their ballot made it on time.