Servicemembers to follow long absentee voting tradition

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
A pen-and-ink drawing in the Oct. 29, 1864, issue of Harper's Weekly portrayed a long line of Pennsylvania Soldiers outside their A-framed tents, each awaiting his turn to vote in the 1864 presidential election.

Artist William Waud's rendering captured the high interest in the high-stakes election that pitted incumbent President Abraham Lincoln against Army Gen. George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.

It was the first national election any nation had ever conducted in the midst of a civil war.

In the coming weeks, U.S. servicemembers around the world, many in combat zones far from their home states, will have the opportunity to help elect their next commander in chief. They'll be exercising a right the United States has endeavored to extend to them throughout its history -- in war as well as peacetime, and regardless of where they're stationed or deployed around the world.

Polli Brunelli, the Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program director, expressed hope they'll take advantage of the opportunity during the second presidential election since the war on terrorism started in 2001.

"We have military members spreading democracy all over the world, and it's important that they themselves participate in the process," she said. "They are electing our policymakers, whose work has a direct impact on these individuals' lives and their family lives. So it is important that their interests are represented."

A random survey after the 2004 election showed 73 percent of the military and 77 percent of federal employees overseas voted, Ms. Brunelli said. Those numbers reflected a jump from the 2000 election, in which 57 percent of the military and 55 percent of federal employees overseas voted.

All indicators point to this trend continuing in 2008, she said, when elections will determine who will take the presidency, 35 U.S. senate and 435 U.S. representative seats, as well as 13 state governor posts.

Solid participation in the presidential primaries, a surge in activity on the Federal Voting Assistance Program Web site and extensive outreach by legions of voting assistance officers throughout the military sets the stage for high voter participation among Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and their families, Ms. Brunelli said.

That's despite the vast challenges inherent in extending the vote to servicemembers serving around the globe, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our men and women are deployed to combat zones. They're in disaster areas. They're also serving aboard surface vessels and submarines, as well as in remote areas where mail delivery is unpredictable," Ms. Brunelli said. "So this sometimes makes absentee voting particularly challenging."

It's not a new challenge for the military.

Absentee voting actually predates the United States, and some of the original 13 colonies made provisions for voters who couldn't get to the polls on election day -- as long as those voters were white male property owners.

But the first major development in expanding absentee voter rights didn't occur until the Civil War, Ms. Brunelli said. Mass conscription forced both Union and Confederate states to consider ways for their many electors away from home to vote.

When the war started, just one state allowed Soldiers to vote outside their election districts. But in the run-up to the 1864 election, 25 states enacted legislation allowing absentee voting, historical documents show. A Soldier could vote in the field, as depicted in the Harper's Weekly artwork, or by proxy, sending his marked ballot to someone in his home voting district to cast on election day.

Absentee voting during the Civil War wasn't without incident. Army Pvt. William James Smith, a member of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, recalled breaking away from his unit to vote in a village somewhere between Winchester, Va., and Hagerstown, Md.

"I went to the polls with two comrades, one of whom was killed and the other badly wounded within 20 minutes after we cast our votes for Abraham Lincoln," he wrote sometime after the shift-key model typewriter was introduced in 1878.

After the war, many of the state absentee laws lapsed, to be revived only in brief spurts during the Spanish-American War and World War I.

It wasn't until 80 years after the Civil War -- when some 5 million U.S. troops were fighting in Europe and the Pacific during World War II and the 1944 presidential election loomed -- that the United States launched a concerted effort to ensure its deployed troops could vote.

The Soldier Voting Act of 1942 represented the first legislation guaranteeing military members a vote in presidential and congressional elections during wartime, even when away from their homes of record, Ms. Brunelli said. It extended that right regardless of registration and poll tax requirements, as long as the voter met state qualifications.

The law directed the states to adopt specific absentee voting procedures and provided for a federal post card application for an absentee ballot, along with free postage for balloting materials.

But because the law wasn't enacted until Sept. 16, 1944, it had little impact on the November 1944 election, Ms. Brunelli said. Shortly after passing the law, Congress amended it to provide a Federal War Ballot for use by voters who, despite applying for an absentee ballot within the deadline, didn't receive a state ballot 30 days before the election. Use of the federal ballot was conditional on each state's acceptance.

Seven years later, President Harry S. Truman was concerned that the law hadn't gone far enough. He asked the American Political Science Association to study the military voting problem and come up with recommendations. With the United States in the midst of the Korean War and the 1952 presidential election just around the corner, President Truman -- who didn't run for re-election -- endorsed the association's findings and took the case to Congress.

"About 2,500,000 men and women in the armed forces are of voting age at the present time. Many of those in uniform are serving overseas, or in parts of the country distant from their homes. They are unable to return to their states either to register or to vote," President Truman noted in a letter to Congress. "Yet these men and women, who are serving their country and in many cases risking their lives, deserve above all others to exercise the right to vote in this election year. At a time when these young people are defending our country and its free institutions, the least we at home can do is to make sure that they are able to enjoy the rights they are being asked to fight to preserve."

Congress passed the Federal Voting Assistance Act in 1955 to allow and assist military members, federal employees overseas and other U.S. citizens associated with the military to vote when away from their voting residences.

More than two decades later, Congress passed another law expanding absentee voting rights to other U.S. citizens living overseas.

The two laws were merged in 1986 into the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. This law, administered by the Defense Department, ensures military members and their families, as well as U.S. citizens living outside the United States, have the right to register and vote in federal elections.

The law also provides for the Federal Write-In Absence Ballot, a back-up ballot to be used when a state ballot doesn't arrive on time, as long as the voter applied for it before the deadline. This ballot is available at U.S. military bases and embassies worldwide, as well as on the Federal Voting Assistance Program Web site.

As director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, Ms. Brunelli said, she's seen big improvements in the department's ability to reach out to servicemembers and their families to encourage them to vote.

"We've made a tremendous effort to train and equip the voting assistance officers," who number in the "tens of thousands" and serve across the services, from the installation to the unit level, she said.

Working hand in hand with the military, but also with embassy and consulate staffs and overseas citizens groups, these voting assistance offers are getting the word out about how to vote.

Technology, particularly the Internet, has helped this effort immensely, Ms. Brunelli said. The recently redesigned Federal Voting Assistance Web Site provides detailed information about overseas voting procedures and materials, including instructions for obtaining and using the Federal Post Card Application and for using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot.

The site also provides online voter registration for residents of states that accept the procedure. Citizens of participating states can register online and receive a ballot. However, they still must meet all registration deadlines and return their completed ballot by "snail mail," officials said

For voters without Internet access, 51 states and territories accept the federal postcard application by fax, as long as the voter also mails in the original form, Ms. Brunelli said. Thirty-eight states will fax out a blank ballot, and 26 allow voters to return their completed ballot by fax.

"So if a voter has no other way to vote, and the state has a mechanism in place, then the voter can choose whether he or she wants to use that mechanism," Ms. Brunelli said.

With the clock ticking toward the cut-off for voter registration -- 45 days before the election -- voting assistance officials are encouraging servicemembers and their families overseas to act quickly.

Capt. Gretchen Haywood, voting assistance officer at Aviano Air Base in Italy, has been busy trying to reach more than 3,200 active-duty members and more than 2,300 civilians at the base who are eligible to vote.

"It's important for all Americans to exercise their right to vote in order to play a part in our democratic system and have their voices heard," she said. "After all, how many professions do you know of that are able to vote for their next leader? As members of the armed forces we are essentially electing our next commander -- our commander in chief."

Everyone in the military has an opinion on issues ranging from pay to health-care benefits to the U.S. role in the war on terrorism, she said. "Voting is our chance to have our voices heard on issues important to us."

Ron Holland, voting assistance officer at U.S. Army Garrison Schinnen in The Netherlands, emphasizes to the servicemembers he meets with that every vote counts.

"Don't forget that absentee ballots played a significant role in past elections," he said. "If you don't vote, then you're allowing others to make decisions without any input from you."

Ms. Brunelli said she'd like to see more Web-based tools offered in the future to make voting more convenient and more accessible for servicemembers and their families overseas.

"What we are doing and continue to do is provide opportunities for these members to vote and to get them access," she said. "We don't force them to vote. It's their choice to vote, but we want to make sure they have all the means possible at their disposal."

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