It's the rare political rally, Republican or Democratic, that does not include a "thank you" and a prayer for American troops, especially those serving overseas. Yet once again in 2012, the ability of those same troops to exercise their right to vote was, incredibly, still not assured. At a time when so much is being asked of our service members, and in an era when long distances are supposedly no obstacle to the flow of information, this remains a national disgrace.
In 2008, only about 20 percent of overseas military were able to vote by absentee ballot, according to the Military Voter Protection Project. In 2010, it was even worse, at 5 percent. The other 95 percent of those serving overseas simply didn't vote.
The precise numbers won't be known for some time, but the percentage of military voters figures to be low again this year. The military was supposed to create Installation Voting Assistance Offices to facilitate voting on all installations worldwide. A late August report by the Defense Department's inspector general found offices on only half of the installations.
Meanwhile, there have been reports of delays in mailing out absentee ballots to military voters in Vermont, Michigan, Mississippi and Wisconsin. A group of Republican senators warned this week in a letter to the Defense Department that thousands of troops could be disenfranchised. "These ballots are unlikely to reach these service members until after Election Day has passed," they warned.
Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project, has predicted that once all ballots are tallied, only 25 to 35 percent of overseas military voters will participate this year.
The basic problem is that the system is highly bureaucratic, requiring troops overseas to file requests through the Defense Department to their states and hope the ballots arrive in time for them to fill out and mail back before the election.
Confusion at the state level, reassignment of a service member to a new post, or simple delays in the mail can cause votes to slip through the cracks. The obstacles are great enough that many members of the armed forces just don't bother to file voting requests - people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan presumably have other things on their minds.
In 2009, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act to fix this. The law requires states to mail ballots to service members at least 45 days before an election.
The Move Act does appear to have improved things. The number of late ballots has fallen in some reports. But enforcement by the Justice Department has been spotty. Mitt Romney's campaign was forced file suit in Wisconsin to seek a court order for all ballots to be counted. The Justice Department followed up by filing a similar suit in Vermont.
The extensions would be a good thing. But it is ridiculous that they are needed in the first place. A government with a military capable of dropping bombs with pinpoint accuracy halfway around the world ought to be able to create a system that gets its soldiers' votes to the ballot box on time.