Weekly Columns

In towns across Arkansas, people are telling me Election Day can’t get here fast enough. We cherish our right to vote and it appears that most of us are ready for it to be November 6th so we can finally cast our ballots.

The men and women serving our nation overseas don’t have to wait until then. They already can check the boxes on their ballots thanks to laws that guarantee their votes get counted in every federal election.  Unfortunately, recent reports cast a doubt on the Department of Defense’s (DOD) effectiveness in helping our servicemembers and their families stationed abroad exercise this fundamental right.

According to a study by the Military Voter Protection Project (MVP Project), the DOD’s record in implementing the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) is disappointing. 

The MOVE Act requires absentee ballots be sent out no later than 45 days prior to an election and that voting assistance offices to facilitate voting for servicemembers and their families be set up. It is in this second area that the MVP Project gives the DOD a failing grade. The group’s study shows the department has failed to provide on-base voter assistance at every military installation. It contends that many of these offices were set-up after the deadline passed and in areas that are not easily accessible for servicemembers and their families to utilize.

The DOD disputes this report, but the evidence seems to contradict its story. Requests for absentee ballots are down in a number of states, including many states that will be pivotal in determining who will be our next president. The DOD’s own inspector general’s office recently released a report stating that not all of the voting assistance offices were established “as intended” and that the department needs to use more effective means of targeting voters.  To make matters worse, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently made public comments that call into question whether military service members should vote at all. 

The MOVE Act was written to ensure that Americans abroad will not be denied their fundamental right to help determine the future of our country. Our servicemembers clearly have a large stake in that.  When a report like this is released projecting low participation rate by military voters in this election cycle, one cannot help but think that more needs to be done to rectify this problem. Our government must do everything in our power to ensure that every servicemember is encouraged, and has the ability, to exercise our most fundamental civic duty that they have risked their lives to defend.

Several of my Senate colleagues and I sent a letter to General Dempsey urging him to take those steps. In this letter, we noted that George Washington well understood the dual responsibilities of citizenship and military service. While serving as commander of the Continental Army, then-General Washington said: “When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen.”

The service and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform is what protects the right of every American to vote in free elections. The very least we can do is ensure that those same rights are afforded to them, as well as the ability to exercise them.