11/10/2009 - Sixty years ago, President Harry S. Truman wrote to members of Congress asking them to repair an absentee voting system that was failing Americans serving in our military. His appeal came in an era when our elections relied on paper and a combination of domestic, military and international mail systems to register and transmit ballots. Despite an explosion in technology since the 1950s, the absentee voting process has changed very little. As a result, one in four ballots requested by uniformed and overseas voters were not counted in last year's election.
Congress is beginning to answer Truman's call with its recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the bipartisan Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Bennett (R-UT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) along with more than 50 other senators from both sides of the aisle. The act ensures that the millions of Americans living, working and serving abroad will get their absentee ballots faster, giving them more time to vote and increasing the likelihood that their ballots will be counted.
Military personnel who put their lives on the line for our nation and the civilians who carry our values abroad deserve to have their votes count. In January, the Pew Center on the States issued "No Time to Vote," a comprehensive analysis of states' voting systems for overseas service members. It found that 25 states and the District of Columbia do not provide enough time for military personnel abroad to vote. Pew's report also pointed to effective solutions that had proven their value in pioneering states and in the private sector.
The MOVE Act will implement many of these evidence-based solutions, giving Americans abroad adequate time to vote by requiring states to send ballots to them earlier and faster, making registration and voting information available electronically and providing backup absentee ballots that can be used when conventional ones don't arrive in time.
While these changes offer a significant step forward in resolving ballot transmission problems, they won't be helpful to voters if outdated records in voter registration systems direct materials to the wrong address. State voter registration systems cannot keep pace with increasingly mobile populations by relying on antiquated practices, such as handwritten registration cards and manually entered voter lists. The mismatch between a fast-moving voter and a slow-moving voting process is an obstacle for Americans in the military and overseas, who often struggle to notify election officials as they relocate. At home, the same problems create numerous inefficiencies, not the least of which is a growing reliance by voters on unregulated, unofficial groups to collect voter information and submit it to election officials.
This system creates significant challenges for voters and for election officials tasked with ensuring the accuracy and integrity of our election system. A survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Pew found that more than 2 million registered voters could not vote in November 2008 because of registration issues. Military and overseas voters were almost twice as likely as domestic voters to experience registration problems.
Fortunately, many states are testing solutions such as online registration and using other official data sources such as motor vehicle and public assistance agency records to put eligible voters on the rolls. These innovations are showing promising results in improving the accuracy of voter lists and making voter registration more portable for voters who move or change names or marital status. Congress' bipartisan efforts to improve military and overseas voting were successful because they were based on facts and evidence instead of partisan bias. If we take the same approach, other parts of the ailing election system, such as voter registration, can be improved as well.
President Truman was right to demand an election system that works for Americans serving abroad. It is long past time to answer his call to fix the voting process for military voters. Congress took the first step to bring military and overseas voting into the 21st century. The next step is to ensure that we also have an accurate, cost-effective and efficient voter registration system that works for all Americans.
David Becker is project director of Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts.