Samuel F. Wright

Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
Director, Service Members Law Center
(800) 809-9448, ext. 730
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A Small Price: Laws on the books protect the few who sacrifice for the many.

By Captain Samuel F. Wright, JAGC, USN (Ret.)

7.0—Military Voting Rights

In a speech to the House of Commons on Aug. 20, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: “The gratitude of every home in our island, in our empire, and indeed, throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge of mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

These eloquent words about the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain could apply equally to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces today. The entire U.S. military establishment, including the National Guard and Reserve, amounts to less than three-fourths of 1 percent of the U.S. population. It is these few who, by their prowess and their devotion, have protected all Americans from a repeat of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the seven decades since 1940, Congress has enacted many laws to protect the interests of those who serve or have served our nation in uniform. With three of those laws in particular, Congress was fully aware that it can, and sometimes does, impose costs and inconvenience on election officials, employers, fellow employees, creditors, and others. Yet those who have sacrificed have earned these protections.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), passed in 1986, requires local election officials to have absentee ballots printed and ready to mail to eligible voters overseas 45 days before an election. This law gives armed forces members time to receive their ballots, mark them, and return them in time to be counted, no matter where their service to the country has taken them.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994 requires civilian employers to reemploy, upon their return from duty, those who have laid aside their civilian jobs to serve the nation in uniform, voluntarily or involuntarily. The law ensures no loss of seniority and safeguards pension benefits upon reemployment, as if the veteran has been continuously employed in the civilian job. USERRA also protects employees and potential employees from discrimination with respect to initial employment, retention in employment, promotions, and employment benefits.

USERRA was a long-overdue recodification of the Veterans Reemployment Rights Act, which was initially enacted in 1940 as part of the Selective Training and Service Act. In 1941, Congress expanded the reemployment provision to include voluntary enlistees as well.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protects men and women in uniform from default judgments imposed against them in civil and administrative proceedings if their military service precludes them from responding.

The burdens imposed upon these third parties (election officials, employers, and creditors) are small compared to the burdens—and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice—those who serve voluntarily undertake while in uniform.

While strong and effective, these laws are not self-executing.

The legal rights and assurances granted the armed forces through these laws and others are only as effective as the understanding of those laws by employers and—most important—those who serve the nation. The challenge is finding the proper resources for that understanding.

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