July 15, 2009

Schumer, Chambliss & Nelson Announce Key Senate Committee Unanimously Approves Bipartisan Bill to Make Voting Easier for Military Voters

Bill Passes With Overwhelming Bipartisan Support; Senators Now Plan To Add Measure To Pentagon Bill Being Debated on Senate Floor This Week
Legislation Would Place New Requirements on States To Mail Out Ballots To Troops In Time to Give them 45 Days to Return Their Ballots
Bill Also Requires Defense Department To Make Emergency Ballots Available Online So That Troops Can Print Them Out and Send Them Back
WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) announced Wednesday that the Senate Rules Committee has unanimously approved their bipartisan legislation to make it easier for U.S. troops to cast ballots from overseas. Calling the issue an urgent priority, the Senators also announced that they plan to offer the bill as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill being debated on the Senate floor this week and next. 
The bill, called the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (“MOVE Act”), comes after a Rules Committee survey last May showed that as many as one in four ballots cast by military voters went uncounted in last year’s presidential election. The bill approved today would fix several of the flaws responsible for such widespread disenfranchisement. Among other provisions, it requires that all states provide military voters with ballots no later than 45 days prior to the election, so that they have adequate time to complete and return them. The bill would requires states to provide ballots electronically.  Additionally, it beefs up the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) at the Department of Defense, which is the main source of election-related information and assistance for many members of the military.  The legislation, S. 1415, also addresses problems the military and overseas voters face in registering to vote from outside the U.S.  It would bar states from rejecting military ballots for lack of a “Notary” signature—a feat difficult to achieve in the bases of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is the least we can do for our troops to make sure their votes get counted when they are serving overseas,” said Schumer, Chairman of the Rules Committee. “This bill will remove the barriers that too often conspire to disenfranchise our military men and women. If we can deliver supplies and high-tech equipment to the front lines of combat, we can figure out how to get our troops a ballot so they can vote. We plan to move this bill on the Senate floor in the next few days. We want it to become law in time for next year’s elections.”

“Of the 992,000 military and overseas absentee ballots requested for the 2006 election, more than 660,000 never reached election officials,” said Chambliss, the bill’s lead Republican sponsor and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This is simply unacceptable. Our military men and women serving overseas to defend and promote our national values at very least deserve to participate in the electoral process.”
"Today's action by the Rules committee is a welcome step forward on a very important issue," said Senator Ben Nelson.  "Voting is a fundamental right, but all too often military and overseas voters trying to cast a ballot are faced with insurmountable hurdles and their votes are never counted.  This bill will help fix a system that isn't working for our brave men and women in uniform."
At a May hearing, the Senate Rules Committee released a study showing that as many as 25% of troops stationed overseas went uncounted in 2008. Schumer said the estimate was based on figures provided to the committee by election officials in seven of the states with the highest number of deployed troops. In 2008, military personnel and some civilians hailing from these states requested 441,000 ballots in order to vote from overseas locations, as allowed by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). Of those, 98,633 were never received back by the election officials in the U.S. and so were declared “lost” ballots. Another 13,504 were received but rejected for various reasons including a missing signature or failure to notarize, as is required in some states. When combined, these two categories amount to 112,137 voters in those seven states—or 25.42% of the 441,000 who requested ballots—being disenfranchised, the study found.
The impediments include: Difficulties in registering to vote from overseas; not receiving ballots early enough; and obstacles to returning the ballots in time to be counted.   According to testimony at the Rules Committee hearing, even ballots that arrive on time are sometimes rejected for minor, non-election related technicalities, such as not being on a certain kind of paper.
The bill would address these and other problems by:
  • Guaranteeing that military and overseas ballots will be counted if sent by Election Day;
  • Ensuring that states send out ballots a minimum of 45 days in advance of the election so military and overseas voters will receive them in time
  • Improving awareness and use of a failsafe ballot that voters can use if their ballots are lost in the mail;
  • Prohibiting states from rejecting a marked absentee ballot solely on the basis of a missing notary signature, paper size, and other restrictions
  • Giving more resources to the Department of Defense Voting Assistance Offices who provide voting information and support to service men and women and their families; 
  • Establishing standards for record-keeping on military and overseas voting statistics; and
  • Encouraging greater enforcement of the military and overseas voting statutes.
On Wednesday, the bill  picked up new cosponsors including Rules Committee Ranking Member Robert Bennett, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and John Cornyn, and Democratic Senators Robert Byrd, Dianne Feinstein, Daniel Inouye, Patty Murray, Richard Durbin, Mark Pryor, Tom Udall, and Mark Warner. Other cosponsors include Roland Burris, Maria Cantwell, Robert Casey, Johnny Isakson, Jeanne Shaheen, and David Vitter.
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