Opinion

Securing the Vote for All

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On Veterans Day, Americans honor those who have fought for this country and also those who are deployed. As a retired flag officer, I find my thoughts especially focused on my brothers and sisters in uniform far from home. As they risk their lives every day to safeguard our freedom, another routine sacrifice is often overlooked: the guarantee that their votes will be counted.

For decades, military service members and other Americans living abroad couldn't be certain that their absentee ballots would be tallied because of a complex maze of state rules and unrealistic deadlines. Indeed, in 1952, President Truman implored Congress to fix the obstacles in the system. Yet the flaws persisted. In January, my colleagues at the Pew Center on the States published "No Time to Vote," a report showing that 25 states and Washington still had shortcomings in the absentee ballot process, which made it less likely that the votes of military service members abroad would be counted.

Congress responded last month by enacting the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act as part of the defense authorization bill. The MOVE Act, which received bipartisan support in both houses, will require states to provide absentee ballots to overseas voters earlier (at least 45 days before an election) and faster (using technology such as e-mail to send blank ballots). The bill requires states to implement these and other changes in time for next year's federal election.

These measures to provide Americans abroad with time to vote in federal elections are long overdue, but they are just the start.

We need to extend the MOVE Act's improvements to state and local elections and fix an outmoded voter registration system that has failed to keep pace with technology. Overseas voters - just like their neighbors at home - deserve a system that works no matter what races are on the ballot. As states implement the changes required by the MOVE Act, they should make it easier for military and overseas voters to cast state and local ballots as well. At the same time, states should modernize their registration systems to ensure that these highly mobile voters receive ballots and voting information at the correct address.

When I was first commissioned in the Navy, handwritten registration forms were consistent with then-current "triplicate" technology. Today, however, the state of the art is text messaging, social networking and hand-held mobile devices that put the computers of yesterday to shame. In this new world, a voter registration system that relies on paper rather than digital data is dangerously past its prime.

Our current system is expensive and cumbersome and can undermine citizens' right to vote. For example, more than 2 million voters were unable to cast ballots in 2008 because of registration problems, according to a study conducted for Pew by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even worse, members of our armed forces were almost twice as likely to experience registration problems as were members of the general public.

At the same time, more voters are looking for election information online. Voters need reliable access to official data about whether they are registered, where they can vote and which candidates are on their ballot. Additionally, overseas voters are seeking ways to get the information they need to complete a write-in absentee ballot when their regular one doesn't arrive in time. Several states already are cooperating with Pew's Voting Information Project to give voters fast and convenient access to answers to questions about the voting process. Passage of the MOVE Act gives states an additional opportunity and incentive to leverage these tools for military and overseas voters as well.

Veterans Day is a poignant reminder that many have sacrificed much to defend and represent America around the world. Truman understood that those sacrifices shouldn't include the right to vote, and Congress' recent enactment of the MOVE Act is a tremendous step forward in answering his call. But there is much more that can and should be done to protect the right to vote for those who protect us. States must seize this opportunity to modernize voting for military and overseas voters so that every American can have an equal voice.

Retired Rear Adm. James J. Carey has been involved in military voting rights for the past 30 years. He serves as a senior policy adviser to The Pew Charitable Trusts' Pew Center on the States and is national chairman of the National Defense Committee.