They Fight but Can't Vote

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rep. Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip, introduced a resolution on July 8 demanding that the Defense Department better enable U.S. military personnel overseas to vote in the November elections. That act was followed by silence. Democrats normally leap at any opportunity to find fault with the Bush Pentagon. But not a single Democrat joined Blunt as a co-sponsor of the resolution, and an all-Republican proposal cannot pass in the Democratic-controlled House.

Analysis by the federal Election Assistance Commission, rejecting inflated Defense Department voting claims, estimated overseas and absentee military voting rates for the 2006 midterm elections at a disgracefully low 5.5 percent. The quality of voting statistics is so poor that there is no way to tell how many of the slightly more than 330,000 votes were sent in by absentee military voters and their dependents and how many were from civilian Americans living abroad.

Nobody who has studied the question objectively thinks there has been any improvement since 2006, and that is a scandal. Retired Marine Corps Capt. Charles Henry wrote in the July issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings Magazine: "While virtually everyone involved . . . seems to agree that military people deserve at least equal opportunity when it comes to having their votes counted, indications are that in November 2008, many thousands of service members who try to vote will do so in vain."

Henry, now an independent broadcast journalist, has personal experience with this enduring problem. While serving as a Marine at sea off the coast of Iran, he received his 1980 presidential ballot too late for it to be counted. President Harry Truman said of troops fighting in Korea, "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." But the U.S. military that has so perfected the art of war over the past half-century is at a loss to enable soldiers to vote.

A combat officer has enough to do without handling the votes of troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Defense Department inspector general's report in March last year recommended "appointment of civilian personnel" as "voting assistance officers." The Pentagon brass rejected the idea.

I reported four years ago that problems with overseas military voting in 2000 had not been corrected for the 2004 presidential election. At that time, Undersecretary of Defense David Chu was put in charge of solving the problem. Despite massive turnover at the Pentagon, Chu remains in place -- best known among critics of the military vote problem for his chronic failure to return telephone calls.

Congressional attention to the problem has been scattered and limited mostly to Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn, who this year decried "a lack of will" at the Pentagon to address the issue. Democratic interest might be tempered by apprehension that soldiers will cast too many Republican votes.

Nevertheless, at least one prominent Democrat -- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer -- described himself to me as eager to deal with this problem. (Hoyer's home state of Maryland is one of the worst offenders, with only 4.1 percent of overseas voters participating in 2006.) Hoyer and Blunt, who have become friendly adversaries in a bitterly partisan Congress, conferred several weeks ago and agreed in principle on co-sponsoring a resolution aimed at getting the Defense Department moving.

Hoyer wanted the resolution to cover expatriate Americans as well as the military, and Blunt did not object. They turned the issue over to staff members and went about the business of major legislation. Blunt had instructed his staff to seek agreement with Democrats but, if that wasn't possible, to introduce a resolution applying only to the military, which was the outcome.

One presidential staffer who is familiar with the situation privately dismisses the Pentagon bureaucrats as "hopeless." In a lame-duck administration counting the days before a troubled eight years finally end, American fighting men and women who are deprived of their right to vote constitute the least of the White House's worries.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company