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Access to vote for military

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

This election year, the right to vote and access to the ballot have been hot topics this election year in states across the nation. But one group of sometimes disenfranchised voters is getting attention.

Last week, an op-ed piece hit many newspapers across the nation, including the Tampa Bay area. It was written by Hans von Spakovsky. He was in the George W. Bush administration and is now with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

He says the two major parties make it difficult for people serving overseas in the military to get involved in the political process, especially in states that hold caucuses to choose nominees.

“Whether they’re the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, when they conduct a caucus where you’ve actually got to show up to express your choice for the nominee for president, you’re basically disenfranchising military voters who are overseas and have no ability like they would in a primary to send in an absentee ballot and say, you know, ‘Here’s who I’d like to vote for,’ in either the Democratic or Republican primary.”

Spakovsky’s opinion piece called on the Republicans to take up the issue during their national convention. They didn’t address this issue except in the broadest terms… not the specifics he wanted. He also called on President Obama to write a letter to the Chair of the Democratic National Committee and instruct her to do something.

“As the President, he is the head of the Democratic Party and he could make a change in the Democratic Party so that some kind of system is set up whereby overseas military voters –and by the way, overseas American civilians, people who work in the State Department- could express their views and cast a vote for who’s going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party.”

Here in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention, I got a chance to ask the Chair of the Democratic National Committee about this military disenfranchisement from the political process. This was not a question Debbie Wasserman Schultz expected during this super-hyped up political party.

“With all due respect for the gentleman from the Heritage Foundation’s opinion, I think that the Republicans and conservatives don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to who’s actually expanded the franchise for everyone and who’s prevented people and thrown obstacles in their path from casting a ballot.”

I wasn’t looking for a partisan response. I just wanted to know if the Democrats were considering this problem for the military voters. I tried again.

“Under President Obama’s leadership, we increased the health care budget for our nation’s veterans— "

LG: “Yeah, but we’re talking about voting.”

“Well, voting is important. But, what we do for our veterans and make sure that we can improve the quality of life, ensure that they have an opportunity to get a job, including our wounded veterans when they come back from serving overseas, is extremely important. It’s not just the more narrow issue of expanding the franchise for veterans, it’s making sure that we take care of them after fighting for our country,” Schultz continued.

As I said, in the middle of rallying the delegates, this is probably not a question she expected nor prepared for.

Another Democrat has been thinking about this. Not at the national level, but at the state level. Jocelyn Benson unsuccessfully ran for Michigan Secretary of State in 2010. She’s now a law professor at Wayne State University and still involved in voting issues. But, there’s another reason she’s taken up this military voting access question: her husband is in the Army, serving in Afghanistan. She’s experienced the hassles of trying to make sure her husband can do what many of us take for granted- vote.

Benson says the federal requirement that states send out ballots in the U.S. Mail 45 days before an election is not enough. She’s working with Senator Gretchen Whitmer to change Michigan’s laws.

“This idea that a 45 day window to both send and return the ballots actually is not the case for many of our service members, including those who are deployed and in combat zones right now. And so, I’m proposing in Michigan that we actually go further, that we go on what’s required to ensure that service members have an easier way to return their ballots, that they’re able to register to vote electronically as opposed to having to mail paper back and hope it gets in on time, and then also that we accept ballots that are postmarked by election day as opposed to saying you must have your ballot in by election day.”

If those changes are passed by the Michigan legislature, it would put Michigan ahead of many other states to make sure people serving their country have the ability to vote for our leaders.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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