What if you tried to vote but got shut out because you didn't receive your ballot until after Election Day? Or because your polling place was all but impossible to find? Or because you had to negotiate an impenetrable maze of rules before your vote could be counted?
All this is happening today and the disenfranchised voters include the men and women who, more than anyone else, have put themselves in harm's way for our country. They are the military personnel and civilian contractors serving overseas.
The numbers are troubling. Despite research showing increased interest in participating in stateside elections, military and overseas voter turnout in the 2004 election was only about half that of the general population.
Of the members of the military who did not vote in 2004, nearly one-third said the reason was that the ballot they requested arrived too late, if it arrived at all. This year, more than half the states had not even printed and mailed their absentee ballots by September 30. Individuals who didn't receive their ballot by that date should have sent in a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot by October 7 according to the Military Postal Service. Yet Department of Defense studies suggest that 60 to 70 percent of military voters don't even know they have that option.
This contributes to an untenable situation where two soldiers serving side by side, dodging the same sniper fire, may face dramatically different odds that their votes will count in the upcoming elections. If you happen to be from a state where ballots can be accessed online and returned by express mail, you're in luck. If you're from a state that relies on paper ballots that must work their way back and forth through the mail and require notarization or an affidavit, chances are slim your vote will matter.
In an era when we can shop, bank, refill prescriptions and conduct other personal transactions securely online, it is inexcusable that military and overseas voters who would like to participate in the fundamental act of democracy are disenfranchised from many races, often for the simple failure of some states to use faxes and e-mails to distribute ballots.
The good news is that there is some relief this voting season for citizens in the military and overseas who want to have a say in federal elections. The Overseas Vote Foundation, with help from the Pew Center on the States, recently launched an online tool that allows these voters to receive and complete the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot easily and accurately. You simply log on to www.overseasvotefoundation.org, verify your ZIP code, and follow a simple series of “Vote-Print-Mail” prompts.
The bad news is that much, much more needs to be done. Real progress to resolve this problem – one that virtually all Americans agree is unacceptable, according to recent polls – requires new thinking, new approaches and our collective commitment to change. Specifically, we must:
• Streamline state laws and make them more consistent. This will reduce barriers for military and overseas voters while preserving the system's integrity.
• Make greater use of existing technology. Send ballots by email to voters dispersed across the globe. Let them use express mail services to return their ballots. Dispense with notarization requirements. Offer online voter registration and verification and provide ballot tracking systems so that voters know whether their ballots have been received and counted.
• Bring together partners across ideological divides and leaders from the military, business, missionary and university communities that are most deeply affected, to advance solutions, ensure needed transparency and accountability, and monitor progress.
At its most fundamental level, our country is based on a very simple bargain: We will all live within the bounds of civil society because we all have a say in how that society operates.
Unfortunately, some Americans are being cut out of that bargain. Inexcusably, they are often the very individuals who put their lives on the line to guarantee the right to vote for the rest of us.
We can, we must, do better.
This opinion editorial was co-written by Brigadier General (Retired) Stephen Koper, President of the National Guard Association of the United States, and Rebecca W. Rimel, President and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts.