Absentee Voting, the Military, and Our Democracy

Despite the simultaneous crises the United States now faces–economic recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, the states must carry out their responsibility for conducting fair elections. To do so, they need significant additional federal funds to effectively implement voting by mail.

The reasons for this are obvious. Voting in person makes it more difficult to follow the guidelines on social distancing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People vote in polling places with widely shared machines, and during a presidential election many polling locations are more crowded than usual. In-person voting during the April Wisconsin presidential primary resulted in voters and poll workers getting infected with COVID-19. This should not be allowed to happen again. But how can it be avoided?

On August 22nd, Democrats in the House of Representatives, with the support of 26 Republicans, voted to require all election mail be treated as first class mail. The House also voted to give the United States Postal Service (USPS) an additional $25 billion to help deal with both the increase in voting by mail and the loss of revenue due to the pandemic.

President Donald Trump opposes allowing the states to expand voting by mail and threatened to veto any bill that provides funding. In addition, he has charged that voting by mail will be fraudulent and has even encouraged voters to commit a crime: to vote twice, once by mail and a second time in person. Such an action, in most states, is a felony, which means that if you followed Trump’s advice and intentionally voted twice, you would be risking never being able to vote again as a convicted felon. The state of Georgia is currently investigating 1,000 cases of voters who are alleged to have voted twice, although it’s unclear if they were acting intentionally.

The president appointed Louis DeJoy—a wealthy Republican campaign contributor with no previous postal experience but with considerable investments in Postal Services competitors—as postmaster general. Soon after entering office, DeJoy took several drastic steps that undermined the ability of the USPS to carry out its routine responsibilities, let alone handle the influx of mail that will result from unprecedented absentee voting. As a result of public and congressional criticism, DeJoy agreed not to implement changes he had introduced until after the election. In addition, he pledged that vote-by-mail ballots would be treated as first-class mail.

Perhaps if Trump had served in the military and not avoided it by claiming he had bone spurs, he would know that the U.S. military and their families have been voting by mail since the War of 1812. Both parties in Congress have supported mail-in voting for 200 years. Despite the fears occasionally expressed, there have been almost no instances of fraud. In the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, 821,000 members of the military voted by mail, and in 2018, 80 percent of members of the military deployed overseas voted by mail.

If Trump succeeds in limiting the vote-by-mail option, it will have an adverse impact, not only on active-duty personnel but also on our veterans, many of whom can only vote by mail, especially those who are physically disabled, or who suffer from diseases as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam or burn pits from wars in the Middle East.

There is bipartisan support for members of the military voting by mail. For example, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) has noted, “Soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines regularly put their lives on the line to defend our democracy, and it’s only right they have ample opportunity to fully participate in that democracy.”

Mail-in voting can make an historic difference in an election. Absentee ballots from military voters in 2000 allowed President George W. Bush to squeak out a win over Vice President Al Gore in Florida by less than 550 votes.

For the sake of our democracy, for the members of our military, veterans, and our country, the Senate and the president must approve the $25 billion that the House voted to appropriate in August. If vetoed by Trump, Congress must override. Plus, this needs to happen quickly. There are only 48 days left until the election.

Cindy McCain, the widow of Republican Senator John McCain, recalled that once her husband began running for office, “Election Day became a holiday for us in many ways. We’d go for lunch, we’d go to the movies–we had ourselves a day. And we made sure that when our sons were deployed, they got their absentee ballots.”

And now, it is up to us to ensure that all Americans get their ballots.

Image: Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Lawrence Korb

Senior Fellow at American Progress; former Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryKorb).