Opinion

They Protect Democracy. Let's Protect Their Votes

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For decades, millions of U.S. military members have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect and represent our nation's system of democracy around the world, while missing out on the democratic process at home. Americans serving overseas have faced numerous obstacles to participating in their own elections. Next month, however, men and women in the armed forces, their families and civilians stationed abroad have a historic chance to cast ballots — and have them count.

In 1952, President Harry Truman implored Congress to reform an election system that disenfranchised those serving in World War II and the postwar reconstruction. Yet for nearly 60 years, the flaws persisted as states wove a complex maze of laws, processes and unrealistic deadlines for citizens seeking to cast ballots from across the globe.

In 2009, the Pew Center on the States published “No Time to Vote,” a report showing that the laws and procedures of 25 states and the District of Columbia left the votes of overseas military personnel at risk of being uncounted. Thankfully, Congress responded with overwhelming bipartisan support later that year by passing the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act.

This November marks the first general federal election since the enactment of that law, which requires states to provide ample time and multiple avenues for ballots to be sent abroad, returned and counted. Registered voters currently serving overseas should have received their ballots and election information by now and should submit them quickly to ensure that their votes count.

As a retired Navy officer with 33 years in the service, I have long looked forward to this day. Years ago, I realized that the election system in our nation did not adequately protect the votes of servicemembers such as submariners at sea patrol or soldiers on the front lines who have limited mail access.

Now, those serving our country can cast their votes with greater assurance. Overseas voters are entitled to receive their ballots for all federal elections earlier (45 days before the election) and faster (through technology such as e-mail). If it still fails to arrive in time, there is also a backup plan — the federal write-in absentee ballot, which can be accessed online, printed as a blank form, filled in manually and sent to an election official.

No longer should members of our military have to deal with cumbersome obstacles or worry that their votes won't count. No longer should they have to find a notary to vote or have ballots rejected because of early deadlines and mail delays.

And yet, while these measures are a significant step forward, still more must be done to protect the votes of servicemembers and overseas Americans in all elections. That's why the Uniform Law Commission, which drafts and promotes legislation across states to address problems common to all of them, has developed the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act. The group, with Pew's support, created the model law that extends the MOVE Act's requirements to the state and local level. State legislatures will begin the process of considering it when they convene next year.

As efforts continue to streamline military and overseas voting, new opportunities for reform are beginning to emerge. For example, we should use the latest proven technology to eliminate the obstacles to voting created by the nation's increasingly obsolete voter registration system. Pew is working with election officials and technology experts to design a modernized system to improve the accuracy of state voter rolls, thus reducing the threat of fraud, while ensuring that voters' registration records are always up-to-date. This is especially important for military and overseas voters, whose ballots are far more likely to be misdirected and returned undeliverable because of outdated or incorrect information.

Truman understood that the sacrifices of our military shouldn't include sacrificing the right to vote. Americans overseas deserve a fighting chance to have their ballots count. With more time and better use of technology, this is finally a reality in federal elections.

Next month, I hope that all who proudly serve our country abroad will help make history by participating in the democracy they dutifully protect.

For help casting overseas ballots, visit fvap.gov or overseasvotefoundation.org.

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