Samuel F. Wright

Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
Director, Service Members Law Center
(800) 809-9448, ext. 730
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Law Review 1156

Law Review 1156

Military Voting in Presidential Caucuses

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

7.0—Military voting rights

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), there are 9,081 active duty military personnel who are eligible to vote in Iowa, and almost all of them are outside the state.  There are only a handful of military personnel serving in Iowa (recruiters, etc.), and most of them are not Iowans.

On February 6, 2012, the Republican Party  will conduct precinct caucuses in 1,784 precincts across the Hawkeye State.  Registered Republican voters will elect delegates to the 99 county conventions, to be held a few days later, and at those county conventions delegates to the Republican National Convention will be elected.

The Iowa caucuses are important, out of all proportion to the state’s population, because this is the first step in selecting the party’s presidential nominee.  The Iowa caucuses perform an important winnowing function.  Some of the candidates who perform poorly in Iowa will not make it to the New Hampshire primary, to be held eight days later.

At least some of the 9,081 Iowans serving in our nation’s armed forces want to participate in the Iowa caucuses, and they should be given that opportunity.  In a 1952 letter to Congress, President Harry S. Truman wrote that those who serve our nation in uniform “deserve above all others to exercise the right to vote in this election year.”  

The active duty service member serving outside Iowa (even within the United States) will almost certainly be unable to travel to his or her home precinct caucus on the evening of February 6.  Travel costs, inability to get leave, and other logistical issues will likely be overwhelming.  If the service member is at sea or in a place like Afghanistan, traveling to the precinct caucus is completely out of the question.  I am also concerned about the “wounded warrior” in a military or Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility.  They are also precluded from attending precinct caucuses, and they are also deserving of accommodations.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) gives military personnel and their voting-age family members the right to vote by absentee ballot in primary, general, special, and runoff elections for federal office (President, United States Senator, and United States Representative).  Does UOCAVA require Iowa and the Republican Party of Iowa to make arrangements for the active duty service member to participate in the caucuses by some alternative means?  One might argue so, but that argument will likely not carry the day.  When UOCAVA was enacted in 1986 and substantially amended in 2009, Congress was presumably aware that in Iowa and several other states delegates to the national party nominating conventions are selected by a means other than a primary.  If the intent was to outlaw the Iowa caucuses, or to require Iowa to provide for service member participation in the caucuses, Congress should have made that intent clear in the text or at least the legislative history of UOCAVA.

At each Republican National Convention, the delegates debate and then enact the rules that will govern the presidential nomination process to be conducted four years later.  On September 1, 2008, the Republican National Convention adopted the “Rules of the Republican Party.”  On August 6, 2010, the Republican National Committee amended those rules.  Rule 15(c)(7) provides as follows:  “Any process authorized or implemented by a state Republican Party for selecting delegates and alternate delegates or for binding the presidential preference of such delegates may use every means practicable, in the sole discretion of the state Republican Party, to encourage active military personnel the opportunity to exercise the right to vote.”

Ron Kaufman, Roman Buhler, Jill Buck, and Robert Laurie brought this issue to the attention of the Rules Committee of the Republican National Committee and urged the adoption of a rule providing for participation by active duty service members in delegate selection processes, including the Iowa caucuses.  As enacted, the rule is toothless, but at least it is a start, and I commend Mr. Kaufman, Mr. Buhler, Ms. Buck, and Mr. Laurie for taking the time to raise the issue.  The Republican Party Rules have never contained such a provision prior to 2008.  The Democratic Party Rules are silent on this question.

What kind of arrangement can be made to enable the absent service member to participate in a precinct caucus in Iowa or elsewhere?  One possibility is a rule enabling the service member or veteran to give a proxy to another registered voter in the precinct, perhaps the individual’s mother or father.  Of course, I realize the “slippery slope” implications of this suggestion. Yet, if we make this accommodation for the absent service member, why not for the absent college student, the person who cannot get to the precinct caucus because of illness, etc?  

I respond that military service is different.  Those who serve our country in uniform protect the rights that we all enjoy, including the right to vote.  It is fully justified to make accommodations for them that are not made for anyone else.

[1] The Democratic Party also conducts presidential caucuses in Iowa, but in 2012 President Obama will likely be unopposed for nomination.