As Memorial Day approaches, we prepare to recognize the sacrifices of Americans who have defended our democracy around the world. One sacrifice a soldier should never be asked to make, however, is losing his or her right to vote.
Lost in the celebrations over record turnout in last fall's election is the fact that some serious problems remain in our voting system - problems that are disenfranchising men and women in the armed forces.
It is past time to repair an election system that does not work for far too many American soldiers and civilians living abroad.
The federal Uniformed Overseas and Civilian Absentee Voting Act is designed to give Americans around the world the information and tools they need to participate in the election system. However, the voting act relies on states for implementation, and too often, state absentee voting laws and procedures create impediments for the military and other Americans living overseas. Problems arise at every step of the process - from maintaining accurate registration rolls for this highly mobile population, to casting ballots and ensuring the votes are counted, to providing access to the information required to navigate the election process.
Americans overwhelmingly want these problems to be resolved. A bipartisan Tarrance Group/Lake Research Partners poll found nearly two-thirds of those surveyed thought the election system was not serving overseas voters well, while 96 percent said it is important that those voters have the opportunity to participate in U.S. elections and have their votes count.
State absentee voting laws and procedures are the chief impediments to overseas and military voting. Earlier this year, the Pew Center on the States report "No Time to Vote" found that in 25 states and the District, these laws, when combined with delivery time, left military voters overseas, some of whom are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, with insufficient time to cast a valid ballot.
In a number of states, policymakers have provided "rush" delivery of ballots to and from people living abroad. In 2008, many state and local election officials established expedited delivery programs; similarly, a new bill in Congress requires the U.S. Postal Service to express-ship completed ballots from military voters abroad.
These are commendable efforts, but they are work-arounds that do nothing to address the deeper time crunch affecting military and overseas voters.
A better approach would be to change state laws and procedures so they work for, not against, military and overseas voters. With Pew's support, the Uniform Law Commission is drafting a model law for states to eliminate unnecessary procedural requirements and build in at least 45 days for delivery and return of overseas ballots.
These voters also need options when their ballots do not arrive in time. The voting act provides for a write-in absentee ballot for federal elections, but this option is not well-known to Americans abroad. What's more, in more than half the states, voters are not even permitted to use these ballots in state and local elections. States should make overseas voters better aware of the federal write-in absentee ballot - and should allow their use in elections at every level.
Finally, a 21st-century election system should not rely solely on 19th-century methods to reach overseas voters. Pew is partnering with nonprofits such as the Overseas Vote Foundation and private-sector leaders such as Google to facilitate electronic transmission of ballots and election information to voters abroad so they have time to return their votes securely via traditional means of delivery.
The simple step of using fax, e-mail or online technology to deliver ballots overseas would give all American voters overseas at least a fighting chance to return their ballots in time to have their votes count.
Americans around the world defend our country and represent its ideals. These women and men who sacrifice so much deserve better than what our current election system offers. States should ensure that election laws and procedures work for military and civilian voters overseas and allow them to exercise their right to participate in our democracy - even at a distance.
Doug Chapin is the director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States.
Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.