Carey, Chapin: Ensure Troops the Right to Vote

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On Memorial Day, Americans honored those who fought and died for our country. As we salute their sacrifice, we also recognize the women and men who currently serve and defend us around the world.

Yet for far too long, we have failed to protect the right to vote for the valiant members of our military, their families and those serving our nation in other capacities overseas. It is time to ensure that the democracy they defend can guarantee that they are able to cast a ballot that will arrive in time to be counted.

For decades, those serving in our military could not be certain that their absentee ballots would be tallied because of outmoded state rules and deadlines. Indeed, in 1952, President Harry Truman implored Congress to reform an election system that disenfranchised those serving in World War II and in the postwar reconstruction. Nearly 60 years later, the flaws persist.

In 2009, the Pew Center on the States published "No Time to Vote," a report showing that the laws and procedures of 25 states — including Texas — and the District of Columbia still left the votes of overseas military personnel at risk of being uncounted.

Congress responded last summer by enacting the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act as part of the defense authorization bill. With overwhelming bipartisan support, it requires states to provide absentee ballots for all federal elections to overseas voters earlier, send them faster and offer voters more opportunities to return them in time to be counted.

These measures to protect the votes of Americans abroad in federal elections are long overdue, but they are just the start.

In Texas — home to the nation's largest population of military service members overseas — the Secretary of State's office is already taking steps to implement the MOVE Act. When the Legislature convenes in 2011, Texas has an opportunity to make these voters a priority for the legislative agenda by also extending the federal MOVE Act provisions to state and local elections.

Fortunately, House Speaker Joe Straus has already issued a joint interim charge to the House Elections and Defense and Veterans Affairs committees to explore how to improve access to our democracy for Texans living and serving abroad; a hearing is scheduled for next week.

The committees should use the MOVE Act as a guide to make it easier for overseas Texans to participate in all federal, state and local elections by crafting legislation that:

  • Ensures that absentee ballots are sent out at least 45 days before all elections.
  • Permits e-mailing blank ballots and information to overseas voters upon request.
  • Allows overseas voters to use the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (used when official ballots aren't received in time) for state and local races.

If the Legislature enacts these changes when it convenes in 2011, it will recognize the rights of all Texans serving our nation abroad by enabling them to cast a valid and timely ballot in every election.

Truman understood that the sacrifices of the members of our military shouldn't include sacrificing the right to vote, and Congress' enactment of the MOVE Act was a significant 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. Texas should move quickly to seize this opportunity to modernize voting for military and other overseas voters around the world.

Carey, a retired admiral, serves as a senior policy adviser to the Pew Center on the States and is national chairman of the National Defense Committee. Chapin is the director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States.