In Case You Missed It: It’s Our Duty To Help Our Troops Vote From Overseas

June 4, 2010

Commentary

Commentary:
By Marty Block
Assemblymember, 78th District

   Memorial Day is a time to celebrate and remember the servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives to defend our values. As we reflect on their acts of sacrifice and heroism, we are also reminded of what these brave Americans experience while deployed overseas fighting for our freedom.

   Advances in broadcast television, news production and Internet communications over the last 60 years have taken us from our living room to the front lines in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, to witness war as we never have before.

   With this humanization of war comes the need to ensure that everyday tasks back home are taken care of when members of our military are overseas. Providing support to their families through programs like California’s Operation Ready Families, assisting them with vehicle loan payments and providing financial assistance grants are important services the government offers to ensure loved ones and families are protected when members are deployed. This support includes protecting servicemembers’ ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

   Providing the means for our active-duty military to participate in their democracy when they are stationed abroad is an important service that could be delivered better. These individuals risk their lives to ensure that other countries are able to hold democratic elections. Our government needs to focus on limiting the barriers that have previously led to the disenfranchisement of this key voter demographic.

   Servicemembers abroad face hurdles including difficulties in registering to vote, not receiving ballots early enough in the process and obstacles in returning the ballots on time to be counted. During the 2008 presidential election, as many as 1 in 4 ballots cast by military and overseas voters went uncounted.

   While movement at the federal level has begun to address these issues, it is still important for states to do their part. That is why I have proposed legislation in California to make the voting process for those stationed abroad as fluid and easy-to-navigate as possible.

   According to a U.S. Election Assistance Commission report on uniformed and overseas voter participation in 2008, states reported transmitting nearly 1 million ballots to overseas uniformed servicemembers and civilian voters. More than 680,000 of these ballots were returned by voters and submitted for counting. Of the total ballots submitted by military and overseas voters, 637,216, or 93.6 percent, were officially counted by the U.S. federal government.

   While those numbers might be impressive if taken at face value, more than 300,000 ballots were not returned nationwide, and it is difficult to determine what exactly happened to them. Unless ballots are returned as damaged or undeliverable, states lack the resources to track them. In California, 11,997 ballots were returned by fax and, of those, 875 were rejected and not counted.

   Current California law permits absentee voters living abroad to submit their completed ballots by facsimile transmission. Unfortunately, this measure expires on Jan. 1, effectively eliminating this option for these voters.

   My bill, AB 2369, will permanently allow these voters to return completed ballots by facsimile transmission. Faxed voting ballots are a proven and effective means of voting by servicemembers and others living temporarily overseas.

   This is an important step forward for a state with a high volume of servicemembers. While Internet voting is still in its development stages and remains too unreliable for nationwide implementation, efforts like my bill represent movement in the right direction to keep military and overseas voters engaged in their democracy.

   Last year, President Barack Obama signed legislation that places new requirements on states to mail out ballots in a time frame to give voters 45 days to return them. That bill also requires the Department of Defense to make emergency ballots available online so that troops can print them out and send them back.

   I applaud the president for prioritizing military and overseas voters. Taken together, at the state and a federal level, these common-sense efforts will help more Americans participate in the voter process.

            In [a few days], Californians and voters in 12 other states will go to the polls to vote in the primary election and a fair number of ballots received will be from those stationed overseas. We owe it to our courageous men and women in uniform to continue working to make it as easy and painless as possible for them to exercise their constitutional right; for it is because of them that we are able to exercise ours.

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