Samuel F. Wright

Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
Director, Service Members Law Center
(800) 809-9448, ext. 730
Email: swright@roa.org
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Law Review 1278

August 2012

Don’t Make Service Members Wait another 60 Years to Vote!

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

7.0—Military Voting Rights

Sixty years ago, in June and July of 1952, the Subcommittee on Elections of the House Administration Committee, United States House of Representatives, conducted hearings on voting in the armed forces.  The Honorable C.G. Hall, Secretary of State of Arkansas and President of the National Association of Secretaries of State, testified that most military personnel fighting the Korean War would likely be disenfranchised in the 1952 presidential election.  Because of late primaries, ballot access lawsuits, and other problems, local election officials (LEOs) would not have ballots printed and ready to mail until a few days before Election Day, in many cases.  There simply would not be enough time for the absentee ballot to go from the LEO to the voter in Korea, and back, by Election Day.

The 1952 congressional report includes a copy of a letter to Congress, from President Harry S. Truman, dated March 28, 1952.  In his letter, President Truman called upon the states to fix this problem, and he called upon Congress to enact temporary federal legislation for the 1952 presidential election.  He wrote, “Any such legislation by Congress should be temporary, since it should be possible to make all the necessary changes in State laws before the congressional elections of 1954.”

Well, it did not work out that way.  President Truman left office in January 1953 and the Korean War ground to an inconclusive halt in July 1953.  The military voting issue fell off our national radar screen until November 2000, when late-arriving military absentee ballots played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the Florida nail-biter.  Please see Law Review 23 (March 2001) for a detailed description of this Florida 2000 issue. 

I invite the reader’s attention to www.roa.org.  Click on “Service Members Law Center.”  You will find a “Law Review Library” with almost 800 articles about military voting rights, reemployment rights, and other military-legal topics, along with a detailed Subject Index and a search function, to facilitate finding articles about very specific topics.  I initiated this column in 1997, and we add new articles each week.

There have been enormous improvements in communications technology in the last six decades, but absentee voting is still being conducted essentially as it was in 1952, by shipping pieces of paper across oceans and continents by snail mail.  As you can imagine, there are three time-consuming steps in absentee voting.  First, the absentee ballot request must travel from the voter to the LEO.  Second, the unmarked ballot must travel from the LEO to the voter.  Finally, the marked ballot must travel from the voter to the LEO, perhaps thousands of miles away.  Each of these steps can take weeks if snail mail must be used, but only second if secure electronic means have been authorized.

In 1952, President Truman promised that the states would have this problem solved by 1954.  Finally, in 2009, Congress got tired of waiting on the states.  Congress enacted the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), amending the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA).  As amended, UOCAVA now requires every state to mail out ballots to UOCAVA voters by the 45th day preceding the primary or general election.  Title 42, United States Code, section 1973ff-1(a)(8)(A) [42 U.S.C. 1973ff-1(a)(8)(A)]. 

This year’s presidential election will be conducted on November 6.  Please remind your LEO that he or she is required to have absentee ballots printed and ready to mail and to mail them out on or before Saturday, September 22, to UOCAVA voters (military and civilian) who have their applications in by that deadline.  Tell the LEO that you will be back on Monday, September 24, to determine if the ballots have gone out on time.  If you find that your LEO expects to miss or has missed this deadline, for whatever reason, please let me know as soon as possible.  My e-mail is SWright@roa.org.  You can reach me toll-free at 800-809-9448, extension 730.

There are more than 7,500 LEOs that administer absentee voting for federal elections.  In most states, officials at the county level (or the parish level in Louisiana) administer absentee voting.  In the New England states, Michigan, and Wisconsin, officials at the city, town, or township level administer absentee voting.  State officials administer absentee voting centrally in Alaska, Maine, and the District of Columbia.

I invite the reader’s attention to the most eloquent opening paragraph of President Truman’s 1952 letter 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.  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.

 I respectfully submit that President Truman’s words about the brave young men and women fighting the Korean War in 1952 apply equally to their grandsons and granddaughters, and great-grandsons and great-granddaughters, fighting the Global War on Terrorism today.  Please bring these eloquent words to the attention of your LEO.