Testimony of Jessie Jane Duff
Gunnery Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
Before the Elections Subcommittee, Committee on House Administration
U.S. House of Representatives
May 21, 2009
Good morning Chairwoman Lofgren, Ranking Member McCarthy, and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you. My name is Gunnery Sergeant Jessie Jane Duff. I retired from the United States Marine Corps in 2004 after serving 20 years on active duty. Among my other activities, I now act as a volunteer and spokesperson for Military Voting Rights USA, a national network dedicated to ensuring that military voters have their votes cast and counted.
During my 20 years on active duty, I often served in a tactical role in motor transport. I served 4 separate one year tours overseas in Okinawa, Japan. While working on active duty, mission was first. No other aspect of my life took priority as high as the mission to support the Marine Corps infantry and air wing units. I worked as a motor transport non-commissioned officer and as a motor transport chief while based in Okinawa. In each case, I was responsible for multiple Marines and ran a tactical motor pool during my last overseas tour in Japan.
Many civilians may find it hard to grasp the isolated conditions military can experience even when stationed in an economically developed society overseas. Due to language barriers and different technology services available, there isn't a flow of information from newspapers and television stations like most experience here in the states. The information is limited based upon various armed forces radio, television, and military newspapers. The reality is, information
flows slowly to the majority of personnel. Many locations throughout the world don't have the technology that Americans take for granted in their Blackberry or iPhone.
The Marine Corps is an expeditionary force. Mail to overseas locations must go through a central Fleet Post Office address in San Francisco or New York before it is forwarded through the Military Postal System to the overseas location. When Marine Corps personnel are training, they are usually in austere conditions and train to reflect combat conditions. Everything is geared towards combat readiness and the Marines, along with other military personnel, focus strictly on that purpose. Field operations have limited services and mail is delayed even in non-combat environments.
Our access to voting information was minimal and due to the nature of our work, Internet and computer access was limited. We spent hours, weeks, and even months in field operations to support training. During training cycles, there wasn't a 9 to 5 day or a 40 hour work week. Deadlines often pass before personnel realize an election is right around the corner. Delays with overseas mail often prevent absentee ballots being received and returned to the states in time to meet the deadlines.
After I retired from the Marines, I learned there is a Federal Absentee Write In ballot available for service members to use if they don't receive their absentee ballot on time. However, information on this ballot was NEVER provided to me during my 20 years of service. That is an appalling fact considering the Federal Absentee Write-In Ballot was created by a law enacted in 1986.
One Major in the Marine Corps, an infantry officer, told me he never heard of the Federal Absentee Write-In Ballot until he didn't receive his absentee ballot on time while serving in Iraq this past election. He was fortunate enough to have access to the Internet when he came out of the field. The Major took time on the Internet to research and discover the Federal ballot was available to him to replace his absentee ballot. However, many members don't have access to the Internet while in the field. Realistically, most military personnel do not know this federal write-in ballot even exists.
Voter registration is advertised and pushed in communities across America. In 20 years of service, I do not recall seeing an absentee ballot request booth, poster with information on how to register, or any voter advertising campaign on any installation I was based or visited. I have been on Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps installations. I was approached only one time during my entire career with information to request an absentee ballot; I was based at Camp Pendleton, California at the time.
As a comparison, every year, several months before April 15, tax centers are set up throughout every military installation. Personnel in administrative support positions are trained and pulled from their regular duties to work in tax centers throughout installations. The effort to enable military to pay their taxes on time is remarkable. On the other hand, the effort to enable military members' their right to vote on how those tax dollars are spent is deplorable.
Military members also receive an annual brief to participate in the Combined Federal Campaign, a campaign that informs military members they can contribute monthly from their paycheck to various charities if they volunteer to participate. Like tax centers and CFC campaigns, training should be provided for state and federal elections to voting teams to support military personnel. Voting deserves as much attention as taxes and charity.
The National Defense Committee reported in March 2009 that 22% of the military voted in 2006, as compared to 40% of the general population. This is disgraceful. To add to discouragement, media and news sources have reported military absentee ballots have been late and uncounted. These reports give military members a lack of confidence that their absentee ballot will count. The Department of Defense has a responsibility to ensure military members are not disenfranchised while serving their country.
The military has a unique tool available to ensure privacy and security if service members request or obtain a ballot electronically. This process can utilize the military Computer Authorization Card, or CAC card, for electronic signature by each military member. Department of Defense could set up an absentee ballot request Internet page with use of the CAC card. Various means of voter registration and absentee ballot requests should be accessible and widely advertised for military members, particularly those stationed overseas.
The most important thing we can do right now is ensure absentee ballots are received on time. It's unacceptable that the current delivery time for ballots sent home from overseas takes three weeks. Express Mail delivery system established by the federal government could shorten that time to four days and ensure:
• A delivery time of four days means an overseas military voter could mail his or her ballot on the Friday before an election and be sure that it will be cast and counted on time. All states would receive their ballots by close of the polls on Election Day.
• An overseas military voter can judge candidates based on the full period of the fall campaign and cast their ballot with confidence they have enough information to make their choice.
• A delivery time of four days with Express Mail, not three weeks, will increase turnout because interest in elections is highest close to the election.
• Express Mail will reduce the need for faxed ballots which force the military voter to give up the secrecy of the ballot.
• Military mail often doesn't have a postmark. With Express Mail, there will be assurance that the ballot was cast before Election Day and an official record of when it was picked up. It should not be rejected for lacking a postmark.
• An Express Mail delivery time of four days, not three weeks, would ensure far fewer military voters will be disenfranchised from ballots arriving too late.
Express Mail would maintain the secrecy of the ballot, ensure public confidence in the election process, and allow more military voters to vote and have their ballots counted. With the Express Mail system in place, Military personnel will have confidence to register and vote in the very election process that they put their lives on the line to defend.
In conclusion, I recommend the following solutions to help ensure military members can have their ballots counted while they serve their country:
• Provide Express Mail system to all overseas service members to ensure absentee ballots are returned in 4 days instead of 3 weeks.
• Provide updated training during each election cycle to voting teams who will provide active assistance to military personnel for their absentee ballot and voting needs.
• Provide accessible voter registration and absentee ballot request locations throughout military installations to assist military personnel and their dependents.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify and I look forward to answering your questions.
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