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A Voting Victory

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At a time when the rest of Washington can't seem to stop bickering, voting rights advocates have quietly scored a bipartisan victory to help military and overseas voters participate in elections.

With little fanfare last month, President Obama signed into law the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act as part of a larger defense authorization bill. The law will remove obstacles that have blocked as many as one-quarter of uniformed and overseas voters from successfully casting their absentee ballots.

The law's enactment is an object lesson in how framing an issue along non-ideological lines can transcend partisan splits so lawmakers actually get something done. It also offers a template for how to fix the bigger, systemic problems that plague U.S. elections, most notably the nation's error-riddled, paper-based registration system.

"It's possible to take the same performance-based approach that succeeded so well with military and overseas voting and turn it to voter registration," said Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives for the Pew Center on the States, which toiled tirelessly to rally lawmakers, voting rights advocates and military associations behind the MOVE bill.

The new law requires state election officials to send ballots to military and overseas voters no later than 45 days before an election. A January report by the Pew center titled "No Time To Vote" showed that 16 states and the District of Columbia routinely send ballots to military voters so late that they literally don't have time to fill them out and send them back before Election Day. Nine more cut it close or allow only enough time to vote by fax or e-mail.

Importantly, state election administrators must also now send registration forms and blank ballots to military and overseas voters electronically, instead of on paper. Those voters must also have access to backup, or "failsafe," absentee ballots in case their conventional ballots get lost in the mail or don't arrive on time. All this points to how existing technologies can improve efficiency and drive down costs, not just for military voters but systemwide, election experts say.

"In this 21st-century digital computerized world that we live in, it doesn't make any sense to retain the paper-based voting system that we had in the 1900s," said Adam Skaggs, counsel for the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. The MOVE Act proves that automation "is possible, makes sense from a policy standpoint, and is something that folks on both sides of the aisle will embrace," he said.

The law's advocates overcame the partisan splits that typically bog down election reform by stepping back from disputes over voter rights versus voter fraud and taking what Chapin calls "the 90-degree walk around the problem."

Following a Pew summit last fall on "Democracy at a Distance," more than 30 organizations representing military and overseas advocacy groups, elected officials, students and voting rights advocates formed the Alliance for Military and Overseas Voting Rights to push for the bill. In the end, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Robert Bennett, R-Utah, John Cornyn, R-Texas, and a diverse mix of 56 other senators cosponsored the bill.

A similar bipartisan coalition is now pushing for action to modernize the outdated voter registration system, which emerged as a leading problem plaguing the 2008 election. Led by Marc Elias, the general counsel for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign, and Trevor Potter, the former Federal Election Commission chairman who advised the 2000 and 2008 McCain presidential campaigns, the bipartisan Committee to Modernize Voter Registration is promoting an automatic, paperless voter registration system.

"We're studying what a modernized voter registration system might look like and, like everyone else, we've got an eye on Capitol Hill to see what might happen there," Chapin said. Schumer has said he is considering a Senate voter registration bill, and in the House, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has introduced the Voter Registration Modernization Act to promote the use of Internet registration by state officials.

Eight states have already embraced online voter registration, and a ninth is poised to follow suit. Washington state launched online voter registration in January 2008, and Kansas did the same in July, according to a recent Brennan Center report.

Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana and Oregon approved online registration in the past six months and expect it to be up and running by 2010. California has authorized its use once a state online voter registration database is complete. Noted Chapin: "We don't have to federalize to modernize."

In the meantime, military and overseas voters can look forward to casting ballots more easily in 2010. It's a long overdue fix: Fully 60 years ago, President Harry S. Truman asked Congress to fix the absentee voting problems that were blocking military voters from participating in democracy, the MOVE Act's backers note.

Given the sacrifices already made by American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the long delay in securing the basic right to vote for military personnel is nothing short of shocking. Still, the new law's enactment offers a ray of hope that given the chance, Congress is still capable of setting aside ideology and fixing at least one system that's broken.

 
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