Lawmakers Pitch New Voting System for US Troops Stationed Overseas

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Soldier reads an absentee ballot at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
Army Pfc. Jerome Clunis, from the 94th Chaplain Detachment, reads an absentee ballot while in the Post Exchange on July 29, 2020, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. (U.S. Army/Reserve Sgt. Jermaine Jackson)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to increase the number of U.S. service members who exercise their right to vote -- especially those stationed in combat zones or deployed overseas.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced a bill Tuesday that would establish a secure electronic voting system for those assigned to hazardous duty stations or on a rotational deployment.

According to the senators, the fully auditable system would track votes from the time they are marked through the counting process.

In a release, Duckworth said a new system is needed as part of an overall effort to "strengthen voting rights across the country."

"Service members face numerous barriers to voting that make it more difficult for them to participate in our democracy by exercising their right to vote," she said. "[The bill] would increase access to the ballot box for troops."

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program's 2018 post-election report to Congress, the Defense Department sent 655,409 absentee ballots to personnel serving abroad, and more than half, or 344,392, were returned, a rate comparable to the overall percentage of Americans who voted in the midterm elections.

Just 26% of those, however, were from active-duty service members.

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The proposal follows an executive order signed March 7 by President Joe Biden that required the Defense Department to establish an "end-to-end tracking system" for all absentee ballots cast by military personnel and Americans living overseas.

Duckworth and Cornyn's legislation would specifically target troops who face the most challenges in voting -- those at remote or dangerous locales.

Similar legislation was introduced in the House earlier this year by Reps. Andy Kim, D-N.J., and Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

"The ballots of military voters are rejected at three times the rate of the general population," Wilson said in May when introducing his bill. "Of those rejected, nearly half are because they arrived too late to be counted. We must do better for our service members who put themselves in harm's way to protect our families by ensuring their ballots are received in a timely manner according to state laws."

Military absentee votes were among those challenged in the numerous lawsuits following the 2020 presidential election. In Nevada, representatives for President Donald Trump filed a lawsuit over more than 3,000 ballots they alleged were improperly cast.

An analysis of the ballots' origins by Military.com found that many came from overseas military post offices and from more than 1,000 domestic ZIP codes where military personnel commonly are stationed.

The plaintiffs dropped their suit the day the state of Nevada certified its election results.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program has yet to release its analysis of the 2020 presidential election and those who voted abroad under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

But according to the program, roughly 46% of the 1.3 million active-duty members, or nearly 600,000 personnel, voted in the 2016 presidential election. About 75% or those, or nearly 450,000, voted absentee.

Biden's executive order also requires the DoD to offer each active-duty service member annually the opportunity to register to vote in federal elections, update their voter registration or request an absentee ballot.

The proposed legislation would direct the DoD to test the new system with a subset of voters in the 2024 federal election and expand it to all qualifying military personnel in 2026.

The new proposal, known as the Reducing Barriers for Military Voters Act, has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

It has been introduced as a stand-alone bill but could be rolled into the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Deliberations on that begin next week in the Senate and the last week of July in the House.

The proposed bill has the support of several military advocacy and voting rights groups, including the Military Officers Association of America, National Military Families Association, Blue Star Families and Mobile Voting Project.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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