Lessons Learned: Making Every Vote Count (Fall 2013 Trust Magazine)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Lester W. Baxter and Glee I. Holton


11/14/2013 - In 1952, President Harry S. Truman asked Congress to improve the absentee voting program for Americans serving in the military. “When these young people are defending our country,” he said then, “the least we at home can do is make sure they are able to enjoy the rights they are being asked to fight to preserve.”

Truman made this appeal during an era of paper ballots that were shuttled by a combination of domestic, military, and international mail systems. As a result, some ballots did not arrive in the United States in time to be counted. More than a half-century later, despite advances in technology, the problem persisted: One in four ballots requested by uniformed and overseas voters was not counted in the 2008 election cycle, primarily because the voting laws at the federal level and in many states did not provide enough time for those living or stationed overseas to request and cast their ballots.

That same year, The Pew Charitable Trusts launched the military and overseas voting project, with the goal of identifying and addressing the most pressing problems facing military and overseas voters in order to expand access and improve the accuracy of elections.

In January 2009, Pew released a report, “No Time to Vote,” that documented the challenges of moving ballots to and from overseas voters. It recommended a number of solutions, including permitting the electronic transmission of election materials, eliminating the requirement that military voters submit notarized ballots, and allowing enough time for ballots to travel between voters and election offices. Although its recommendations were not new, the report attracted the attention of state and federal officials because of its clarity and because of the credibility of Pew, an organization with a reputation for high-quality, objective analysis.

According to an independent evaluation commissioned by Pew’s planning and evaluation unit, “No Time to Vote” motivated Senator Chuck Schumer to champion the issue of overseas voting. Sen. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, enlisted Senator Bob Bennett, a Republican from Utah, and other members of Congress in an effort that led to introduction of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. The evaluation found a parallel between the recommendations in “No Time to Vote” and the act. Pew and its partners led the advocacy effort for the legislation, testifying before Congress and meeting with lawmakers and their staffs. In October 2009, Congress passed the legislation, and President Barack Obama signed it into law.

The evaluation concluded that the influence of “No Time to Vote” on Sen. Schumer was decisive in triggering federal action on the issue and that Pew and its partners played an important role in development and passage of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.

Even with the passage of federal legislation, inconsistent state regulations remained in place. These rules continued to pose problems for overseas voters, because they govern the election process for state and local officials. So more than a year before federal officials acted, Pew began work with the Uniform Law Commission to promote voting reforms across the states. The commission, a nonprofit association that provides states with nonpartisan model legislation on critical areas of state law, had never worked on election issues, but Pew persuaded it to enter the field.

Developing a uniform act typically takes nearly three years, but Pew’s financial and technical support allowed the commission to approve a uniform elections act in less than two years, in July 2010. Because the federal law was in place by then, the commission was able to include that law’s core elements in the uniform law and extend its application to the states. For example, the uniform act expanded the voters covered to include members of the National Guard and ensured that provisions for military and overseas voters in the federal law applied to state elections.  The evaluation found that Pew’s contributions to development of the uniform act were decisive.

Once the act was drafted, the commission and Pew worked together to decide which states would benefit most from adopting the model law.  By the time the evaluation was completed in October 2012, 10 states had passed uniform laws, and four others had introduced legislation.  Pew targeted its advocacy efforts on the six states with the largest population of military and overseas citizens.  Of the six, California and North Carolina had enacted legislation, Tennessee had introduced it, and Florida, South Carolina, and Texas had adopted policies that reflected Pew’s core recommendations.

In summary, the evaluation found that the voting project conducted an effective campaign that highlighted the plight of overseas voters; used solid research to identify clear solutions; and built a diverse coalition of national organizations and spokespeople to push for reform.  These successes triggered passage of the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which reflected the straightforward solutions emphasized in Pew’s research.  With guidance and funding from Pew, the Uniform Law Commission subsequently developed the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act, establishing a legal framework for the consistent adoption of voting reforms across states.  Taken together, these achievements are some of the most substantive changes to U.S. election laws in the past decade.

Lester W. Baxter is the senior director and Glee I. Holton is a director in Pew’s planning and evaluation department.

For more information about Pew’s planning and evaluation unit, go to pewtrusts.org and click on "About Us."

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