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Ensuring Voting Rights For Those Serving Their Country Away From Home

Friday, October 12, 2001

Without a doubt, the low point of the fiercely contested Florida presidential race was the desperate effort of Al Gore`s legal legions to have courts reject absentee ballots cast by America`s armed forces serving overseas. To prevent a recurrence of such a spectacle and to address related problems predating the 2000 elections, corrective legislation has been introduced in Congress.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) has introduced S. 381, the "Military Voting Support Act of 2001," and Reps. William "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), and Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) have offered H.R. 1377, the "Military Overseas Empowerment Act of 2001."

S. 381 would amend the "Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act" to prohibit a state from refusing to count a ballot submitted in an election for federal office by an absent uniformed services voter by deeming it was improperly or fraudulently cast, unless the state finds clear and convincing evidence of fraud in ballot preparation or casting (lack of a witness signature, address, postmark or other identifying information would not be considered clear and convincing evidence of fraud absent other information or evidence).

For purposes of voting for any state or federal office, S. 381 would amend the "Soldiers` and Sailors` Civil Relief Act of 1940," to prohibit a person in military service absent from a state because of compliance with military orders, from being deemed, solely by reason of that absence, to have: (1) lost a residence or domicile in any state; (2) acquired a residence or domicile in any other state; or (3) become a resident in or a resident of any other state.

It would amend the "Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act" to require each state to: (1) permit absent uniformed services voters to use absentee registration procedures and vote by absentee ballot in general, special, primary and runoff elections for state and local office; and (2) accept and process, with respect to any such election, any otherwise valid voter registration application from an absent uniformed services voter, if the application is received by the appropriate state election official before the election.

S. 381 would amend federal armed forces law to authorize: (1) the Secretary of a military department to make a building located on a military installation under the Secretary`s jurisdiction available for use as a polling place in any federal, state or local election for public office; and (2) the Secretary of Defense to make reserve component facilities available for the same purpose.

It would require each state, with respect to any recently separated uniformed services voter requesting to vote in a federal election, to: (1) deem the voter to be a resident of the state; (2) waive any residency or domicile requirement; (3) accept and process any otherwise valid voter registration application from the voter on the day of the election; and (4) permit the voter to vote.

It would direct the Secretary, during federal elections in 2002, to establish a demonstration project to determine the feasibility and advisability of using an electronic voting system by uniformed services voters during such elections in 2004.

A key point of H.R. 1377 requests that the Secretary of Defense explore options for bringing voting methods in line with 21st Century technology. Specifically, it would expand a pilot program used sporadically in the last election that would increase the number of military personnel and their dependents able to cast ballots electronically in the November 2002 midterm election.

H.R. 1377 also would provide for the following:

  1. Guarantee residency for military personnel and their families in federal elections, allowing military members and their families to register and submit ballots in all federal elections. (Some states do not recognize the rights of military voters and their families to vote in their domicile of origin).
  2. Compel the states to find clear and convincing evidence of fraud before discounting a vote.
  3. Give adequate time (30 days) for military absentee voters to receive and send back their ballots.
  4. Streamline the ballot distribution process by allowing members of the military and their families to make one request, good for the entire year.
  5. Ask the Secretary of Defense to set up an electronic voting demonstration.

The "findings" section of H.R. 1377 notes that: "The disenfranchisement of military voters has been acknowledged since 1952, when the Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration of the House of Representatives conducted hearings on the likely disenfranchisement of military personnel then fighting in the Korean War, and President Truman recommended the enactment of temporary legislation by Congress since it `should be possible to make all the necessary changes in state laws before the congressional elections of 1954.`"

The most recent controversy over uncounted military absentee ballots has again shown that the votes of many military members and their families have not been counted because of confusing state and local procedures, cumbersome ballot request and submission requirements, and complicated procedures and ballots. It is time for change.

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