Uniform disenfranchisement: Military voting

Military voting crops up in the headlines every election cycle.  But my perception is this time around we are hearing a bit more about it, and much earlier than normal.  The prominent news story comes from Ohio (from The Examiner):

Ohio Veterans United, along with a number of military groups, including the National Guard Association have voiced opposition to a lawsuit filed by President Obama’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party challenging the fairness of Ohio’s early voting rules claiming that the state’s use of a two-tiered early voting process violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law…

In Ohio, state law allows families of armed forces members and civilians overseas to vote through the Monday before an election while early voting for all other Ohioans ends the preceding Friday. The Obama campaign wants a court order to invalidate the Ohio statutes. (Full Story.)

The surface issue here is if military personnel should have additional days under the early voting rules.  Personally I’m not ready to lend my opinion to this specific case.  Legally, I could see valid arguments against such practice. But my sentiment is in favor of the law, as it sounds like good common sense – give a little extra for those giving a little extra, if you will.  However I’m not at all convinced this is a case of disenfranchisement.  After all, the law covers early voting.  If the service member is willing to vote, then they need to get in line and vote.  If the doors are closed on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, as they are for everyone else, is this disenfranchisement?  … Rhetorical question.

If you ask me, we should be more focused on the absentee ballot system that is far more sensitive to the military voter … and all too easily disrupted.  In 2008, a flap of issues worked against military voters in Fairfax County.  Being part of the National Capital Region, Northern Virginia features a large percentage of military personnel.  Many of them are transient, and opt to vote absentee at their home of record (creative they are.. to dodge taxes!).  But there are a significant number who register and vote local.  And in the last presidential cycle they encountered issues getting their votes counted.  In October that year, news stories surfaced that a high proportion of the absentee ballots were rejected outright by the county registrar’s office … to the tune of 98%.  But the stat was dismissed as deceiving by some – 255 rejected out of 260.  So what difference is 260 ballots in a general election? (Don’t answer… Florida 2000…)

Even worse, those stories were surfacing in late October that year, as the first of the absentee ballots returned to the registrar’s office.  Those, and the even later returns arriving into November, and in some cases after the general election, were due to some delays at the registrar’s office just getting the ballots distributed.  Issues.. or shall I say excuses ranged from difficulty just setting the tickets to email server crashes.  I don’t recall the exact statutory requirement, but the bottom line was ballots were not sent out in time to reach military members through the mail, considering the APO system.  That part of the story was lost in the euphoria of “Virginia is a BLUE state”….

From my personal experience, the overseas military voter got screwed out of the vote more times than not.  In the fall of 1992 I was bound for a tour in Korea.  Before leaving, I’d gone to my home-of-record registrar’s office and filed for an early vote ballot.  The process was easy, made easier by the fact the registrar was an old family friend who’d watched me grow up.  He was proud and pleased to see me voting.  I’m certain my vote was tallied that year.

When I arrived on station in Korea, I inherited a stack of additional duties from my predecessor.  One of those was voting assistance officer.  With weeks before the vote, I had avoided a lot of the paperwork.  My job was instead to track the system.  Along the lines of countless other administrative statistics, the command wanted to know what percentage of soldiers had applied for absentee ballots and had received them.  Much like the “non-mandatory” CFC, 100% of the soldiers had applied for a ballot.  Tracking the received ballots was not scientific.  Top Sergeant asked for a show of hands at the formation.  The number of ballots received a week before election day could be counted on my fingers.  By election day I had to remove one boot to keep count.  But, like some spring freshet, scores of ballots arrived the week after the election.  Go figure.

Similar issue happened in 2004.  I left on assignment (this time as a contractor) for Afghanistan that summer.  Prior to leaving I’d registered for an absentee ballot.  When did I receive the ballot?  On December 12, 2004.   It was postmarked October 30, 2004.  No kidding.  I still have it in my papers… filed under “A” for “angry”.

Forget about voter ID laws and bat-swinging voter suppression techniques.  The old “it is in the mail” technique works every time.