Texas Times: Their Votes Must Count

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn Aug. 14, 2008, 5:34am

The Great State of Texas has always enjoyed a tremendous partnership with our military. Our state is home to 15 major military installations, and one out of every 10 men and women in a U.S. military uniform calls Texas home.

Likewise, Texans are extremely proud of our state's 1.7 million veterans. As I travel throughout Texas, I'm always struck by the remarkable sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform.

Not long ago, during a memorial service for a South Texas soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, I was reminded yet again of why our military service members are so critically important to this nation and our American way of life.

Below are a few lines from a poem that was shared that day for the fallen soldier's family. While just words, they gave me an enormous sense of pride in that soldier and all Americans who put on the uniform.

"It is the soldier, not the president, who has given us democracy.

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to protest ..."

Likewise, it is our troops, not our elected officials, who safeguard the most fundamental of American rights – the right to vote.

I am greatly troubled, however, by the knowledge that our troops are yet again in danger of becoming disenfranchised. There are disturbing indications that the United States is failing our military personnel overseas when it comes to protecting and ensuring their voting rights.

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) paint an alarming picture. According to the EAC, only 992,000 of the six million eligible military and overseas voters were able to request an absentee ballot for the November 2006 election, and only 330,000 of those ballots were filled out and actually reached local election officials.

That means that only 5.5 percent of eligible military and overseas voters were able to fill out a ballot and mail it in.

Congress enacted laws, such as the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002, to ensure that our troops and their family members have a voice in choosing their elected leaders at the federal level.

But according to the statistics we have from the 2006 elections and other indicators, our military voters – especially those overseas – still face major roadblocks to participating in elections. The current system for overseas military voters is just too cumbersome and too convoluted to effectively serve those who serve the cause of freedom.

There is much more work to be done to improve our system to ensure every military vote gets counted. For the finest military in the world, I am confident that this task is an achievable one and, more importantly, one worth undertaking.

To that end, as a member of the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, I have asked the U.S. Attorney General to take action and investigate whether the federal agency charged with assisting and enabling our military voters, called the Federal Voting Assistance Program, is doing all it can to help our military voters.

Each day, our men and women in uniform make extraordinary efforts in the defense of our freedom, both at home and on far-away fields of battle, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I will not be satisfied until the efforts of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, to protect and promote these basic civil rights of our military personnel overseas, match the daily efforts of our troops.

To give our troops a louder and clearer voice at the polls, I have introduced the Military Voting Protection Act, which aims to reduce delays and red tape in the absentee voting system currently in place for our overseas troops by requiring the Department of Defense to take a more active role in the process.

Under my bill, the department would have to collect the completed absentee ballots of our overseas troops and then express-ship them back to the U.S. in time to be counted, tracking the ballots while they are in transit and confirming their delivery when they arrive at local election offices.

Our American men and women in uniform, a great many of them Texans, make tremendous sacrifices in the defense of freedom and the American way of life. They deserve the government's very best efforts to give them the opportunity to participate in our democratic process.

Our call to action is loud and clear: We must make sure that their votes will count this November – and in every future election. The right to vote is too important to deny it to the very same individuals who risk their lives defending it.

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