Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Troops wanting to vote face several obstacles

With the approaching primary election season upon us, journalists are beginning to become aware of the military vote once again.  I was interviewed by the Killeen (TX) Daily Herald.  Here is the article:

Troops wanting to vote face several obstaclesPosted On: Saturday, Oct. 22 2011 11:04 PM
By Sean Wardwell and Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald


Former 1st Sgt. Kenneth Dwanye Patrick was a busy man three years ago.

He returned in January from his third deployment to Iraq with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, and focused on reintegrating his soldiers while personally navigating the channels of retirement and trying to secure civilian employment. 

As the months passed in 2008, newly retired Patrick's life slowed down enough for him to become engaged in politics. Never previously politically inclined, he wanted to cast his ballot in the presidential election that November. But he was turned away at the polls. Election officials said he wasn't a registered voter.

Patrick was surprised; he assumed he'd taken care of all the necessary paperwork at some point through the Army. 

"I was so naive when it came to voting," said the Killeen resident. "It really made me aware that if you want to have a say, you've got to register. People talk about politics now, and I can't say anything because I didn't vote."

When it comes to voting and members of the military, several obstacles exist to allowing men and women who defend American democracy to fully participate in it. 

In a new report on the 2010 elections by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, 

77 percent of military personnel were registered voters, with 46 percent casting a ballot. That's a 21 percent increase from the 2006 midterm elections. 

In contrast, 65 percent of Americans were registered voters in 2010, with 46 percent casting a ballot. 

Yet, despite the voting numbers, service members encounter difficulties making their voices heard during elections. In addition to the high operational tempo of military life and frequent moves that can distract from political engagement, voting by absentee ballot during overseas service or extended training remains particularly problematic. 

While military absentee voting in 2010 was up 24 percent from 2006, according to the federal voting program's 2010 Post-Election Report, more than 112,000 military voters did not receive the absentee ballots they were expecting. That figure is a 16 percent from those who didn't receive ballots in 2008.

MOVE Act

Congress sought to address some of these election concerns with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment, or MOVE, Act in 2009. An extension of 1986's Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, it protects the right of service members to vote in federal elections regardless of duty station.

The MOVE Act requires states to mail absentee ballots to all military voters at least 45 days before an election, provide electronic delivery options for election materials and eliminates a requirement that their absentee ballots be verified by a notary public. But voting rights experts say the MOVE Act's ultimate success remains to be seen.

"While the MOVE Act made strides forward, especially at the state and local level, more must be done to protect the voting rights of our men and women in uniform and to provide them with greater opportunities to register and request an absentee ballot," states Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project, in a report exploring military voting in the 2010 elections.

Don Inbody, a retired Navy captain and political science professor at Texas State University, said while the MOVE Act made progress in increasing the number of military ballots turned in, legislation alone can't resolve the logistics of combat voting. 

"It's pretty clear (that) personnel in a war zone have a hard time voting because of the time it takes to get a ballot," said Inbody. "At the core of the problem is voting laws are entirely constructed by the states."

Impact hard to gauge

Locally, it's hard to tell if the MOVE Act has helped soldiers exercise their right to vote, since election ballots don't differentiate between military personnel and civilians. 

Bell County's voter turnout was 41 percent of registered voters in 2006 but fell to 30 percent in 2010.

By comparison, largely civilian McLennan County, including Waco, a city similar in population to Killeen, had a 40 percent voter turnout in 2006 and a 44 percent turnout in 2010. About half of both counties' residents are registered voters. 

Bell County Republican Party chairperson Nancy Boston said the county's military dynamic doesn't negatively impact attempts to organize, but deployment cycles and confusion of registration status and other factors can force voting to the backburner for some people. 

"I think people are overwhelmed, and I don't think that they actually have time or are really tuned in to election cycles," she said of military personnel who don't vote. 

Bell County Democratic Party chairperson Marianne Miller said much of the voting population feels distracted from the democratic process by the economy and other factors, not just military personnel. 

Army regulations that prohibit partisan organizing on military installations doesn't make it easier to help enroll voters, Boston said, nor does a long legacy of active-duty service members being discouraged from political activism. 

Legislative efforts aside, Patrick said nothing makes up for soldier initiative in the election process. That's why he doesn't blame the Army for his inability to vote in 2008. His company designated a voting assistance officer, which is required throughout the military, who helped soldiers obtain absentee ballots and information on voting and registration.

"The military has given us tools," Patrick said. "It's up to the individual soldier to utilize those resources."

Contact Sean Wardwell at seanw@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7552. Contact Colleen Flaherty atcolleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559.

Legislation helped deployed soldiers vote

By Sean Wardwell

Killeen Daily Herald

Historically, the federal MOVE Act is just the latest in a series of laws that attempted to bridge federal intent with state authority in allowing the military to vote.

Initially, there was little thought among the nation's founding fathers to encouraging the military to vote, said Don Inbody, a retired Navy captain and political science professor at Texas State University.

"For most of the history of the United States, the military was small and nobody particularly thought it was important (to encourage voting)," he said. "The military was isolated and perceived to not be part of society."

Inbody's research indicates military voting was not an issue until the midterm elections of 1862, which was the first time since the American Revolution when a national election was carried out while large numbers of soldiers and sailors were away from home.

"Few local government officials were concerned about absentee voting issues, it being expected that all citizens would simply vote in their local precincts" wrote Inbody in his 2009 report called Voting and the American Military. "Many state constitutions restricted voting to locations within state boundaries."

It wasn't until the election of 1864 that steps were taken to try to allow the military to vote but little legislative progress was made until the 20th century, when provisions were made to assist soldiers fighting in World War II with the Soldier Voting Act of 1942.

Subsequent congressional legislation included the Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955, which established the Federal Voting Assistance Program. The Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975 guaranteed the voting rights for citizens outside the country, even if they didn't maintain a permanent address in the United States.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 updated previous acts of Congress, specifically directing states to provide military personnel and overseas citizens with the ability to vote in all elections, including primary, runoff and special elections.
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