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Opinion: On this Independence Day, let’s protect our troops’ right to vote

By Mac Warner

WV Secretary of State

Right now, roughly 200,000 Americans are deployed overseas, and we ask them to risk their lives in some of the most dangerous, active war zones in the world. They trust our leaders and administration to make the right decision for our national interests — ultimately, at the potential cost of their lives.

However, in 2016 less than 20% of our Active Duty deployed military got through the wickets of registration, application, voting and had their votes counted.

This is an appalling statistic, and one that should be personally offensive to every American. The current COVID-19 pandemic should serve as the catalyst to leverage technology to correct the disenfranchisement of the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our democracy.

Mac Warner, W.Va. Secretary of State

This is an issue that is deeply personal to me. My dedication to public service started with my 23 years in the U.S. Armed Forces — first while attending West Point, followed by my deployment to four continents around the world. I’ve seen firsthand the sacrifice our service people make to protect the United States — truly, their service is nothing short of heroic. When they are “on point,” their minds are on the mission, not the intricacies of election schedules, registration deadlines, ballot applications, and absentee voting.

I am proud to continue my service now as Secretary of State of West Virginia, which is home to many military families. It is my honor to serve them and the rest of our constituents. That is why I am determined to help find a way to make it easier for our military to actually vote, not just get informed of their right and how to vote, which has been the majority effort to date of our Federal Voter’s Assistance Program.

The less than 20% figure weighs on me heavily. It speaks directly to the challenges that our overseas military face to access and participate in our democracy. The current options, quite simply, are untenable. They can try to vote by mail, email or fax, or they can skip voting altogether.

The current pandemic has disrupted mail service to over 180 countries. Even in the best of times, mail service in many countries is unpredictable, and I can attest, it is not available on hillsides in Afghanistan and other hotspots where our Special Forces are sent. Suffice to say, there are significant obstacles to receiving and returning overseas ballots on time. The situation is the same with voting by email or fax; in many places, there simply are no fax machines, scanners, and other equipment needed to cast a vote. As a result, our deployed military is disenfranchised from voting.

We can do better.

There is a way forward. I have used it. In 2018, West Virginia offered a transformative mobile app-based voting option to eligible West Virginian soldiers and overseas citizens during that year’s election. It was a pilot — meant to test feasibility — and it successfully and securely allowed soldiers to leverage the security and privacy features of the smartphone to vote. We witnessed a volunteer in a remote West Africa village, a professor on an overseas sabbatical, a deployed paratrooper, and people in 30 countries vote safely with the app.

This year, and with a different technological solution, we are again allowing deployed WV military to vote electronically. We have also changed our absentee law to allow certain voters with physical disabilities use the ADA-accessible electronic solution. West Virginians in 26 countries voted electronically during our Primary in June. Electronic voting is removing obstacles and proving to currently be the best way for our military and overseas citizens to participate in our elections. If people can bank electronically, shop on the internet, and rely on tele-medicine, they should be able to participate in the very democracy they fight to defend by voting electronically.

Electronic voting critics cite cybersecurity vulnerabilities and threats—and I agree with them. However, the federal standard for transmitting absentee ballots is via fax or email, both of which are significantly more vulnerable, provide no assurances of voter identification, are fraught with connectivity and transmission issues, and require the voter to have access to a fax machine and/or a printer and scanner. I do not pretend that electronic voting is completely secure, but it is far more secure than an emailed image of a ballot. As such, it is, at least, a step forward to greater security and vulnerability mitigation than staying with the status quo of unregulated, insecure email and fax voting.

Last year, I heard Defense Secretary Esper speak at the National Cybersecurity Summit. He spoke passionately and eloquently about “Defense Forward,” a strategy for our country to be at the forefront of leadership in cybersecurity. I support Secretary Esper’s initiative, particularly as it relates to the critical infrastructure of elections. Cyber Command  has multiple capabilities, and it is time to use that infrastructure to secure overseas military electronic voting.

I call upon the Department of Defense to encourage electronic voting for all our troops. DOD can assist those states that now allow e-voting get the word to their deployed military, and DOD can encourage other states to follow suit.  This Independence Day let’s free ourselves from a system that lets less than one in five of our military have their votes counted. It is time to use technological advances to allow U.S. Armed Forces to fully participate in the political process they fight to defend.

Secretary of State Mac Warner is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He spent 23 years in the United States Army retiring at the rank of Lt. Colonel.  He is a six generation West Virginian.

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