Better Protecting Military Members - A View Through Voting Rights
In the 2012 elections, only 1.4% of the military members stationed in the state of Virginia requested their absentee ballots. As the second largest military state, Virginia has experienced a 91% decrease in absentee ballot requests from its military members from 2008 to 2012. Military members in all states have exhibited a significant decrease in voting efforts. With today's focus on voting reform due to potential amnesty for undocumented immigrants, it is also critical we review voting rights of the military members that protect our right to vote.
Today's legislation and policies governing and protecting the rights of military members has not kept pace with societal changes or the technological advances of the 21st century. Perhaps nowhere else is this more apparent than the laws governing their ability to vote. Forty-nine percent of all military members reside in five states: California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia. The majority of military members residing in these states are residents of another state in which they do not reside, and thus have no local vote. Military members should have voting rights in the state in which the government orders them to live.
Upon entry to service, military members are required to declare a state of residency for taxation purposes. They are not authorized to change their residency unless they live in a state where they have been ordered and plan to return to it upon completion of service. Therefore, military members cannot change their residency to each state where they are ordered. Nor, in many cases, would they want to from a financial perspective. This declaration of residency ties many of the military member’s rights to the state of declared residency and can unknowingly affect the member and family far beyond taxation.
Unlike the 19th and 20th century servicemen, which current legislation and policies were written to protect, today's military members typically do not return to their home state upon completion of service. We would all agree that the nation has changed significantly since World War II, and many new factors affect residency decisions, such as the economy, job market, technology, industry cost of living, age of children, etc.
When ordered to a state by the government, military members and their families do not have the right to vote in that state unless they are legal residents. This includes military members, spouses and voting age dependents. As a result, they do not have the ability to formally affect the community in which their families live, particularly the state laws under which they are governed. They also have no voice in who is elected to represent their community. As a non-constituent, military members and their families have less access to their elected officials and therefore no ability to affect the community which includes the school system, taxation, law enforcement, land districting, etc. hard to be a part of the community and immerse their families in the local environment, but military members are denied "ownership" in their own communities.
Locally elected officials frequently go out of their way to understand military life and meet with military members who reside in their districts, but without being part of the constituency, their thoughts mean little come election season. Most military members are not constituents of their local elected officials and therefore lack state representation where they have been ordered to live.
However, military members and their families do have state representation in the state where residency has been established. Although the Department of Defense has a great program designed to provide voting opportunities to all members who choose to take advantage in their states of residency, this must be accomplished through the absentee voting process. Many military members currently choose not to vote simply because of the logistical burden required to do so. Although that is their choice, many have indicated that they would be more likely to vote if they were simply allowed to visit a local voting polling station.
There are other rights affected by state residency which have been resolved. Current federal firearm regulations require all citizens to purchase firearms in their state of residency. ln an attempt to ensure Second Amendment rights to service members, federal regulations allow military members to purchase firearm in the state to which they have been ordered as long as they provide a copy of their military orders and military issued identification card. Could a similar process be utilized to allow military members to vote in elections?
Throughout my 23 years of active service the military has experienced a significant increase in programs requiring administrative oversight and individual participation. Although not a complete fix, this system could significantly reduce the requirement on the Department of Defense to provide voting programs allowing attention to focused elsewhere. Admittedly, a policy change such as this would not fully eliminate the requirement to provide absentee ballots to those members deployed or stationed overseas. This change in policy would reduce the administrative burden upon states during both federal and state elections and some fiscal relief from production of absentee ballots and the administrative processes in place for processing absentee ballots.
Critics will argue that this will create voter fraud or that military members might try to vote multiple times in different states. Any abuses, however, would be handled like all other military violations. In this case, though, it is highly unlikely that individuals would take advantage of the system: these individuals have sworn an oath to protect the very rights that they are exercising. And even if military voter fraud were to go unchecked, as a representative of one half of one percent of the population of the United States, there would be little to no effect at the state or federal level.
Everything possible must be done to give our military members the ability to be a part of the community in which they live and exercise the rights they have dedicated their lives to protect. Military members should strive to exercise their right to positively affect their community in which they live and raise families. Local legislators should be representative of the military members in their districts and states, not just the bases or stations geographically located in their state. Given the opportunity to vote at local polls will create a greater bond between the constituent and legislators, provide military ownership within their communities and most importantly it will increase military voter participation.