This article was originally published in USA Today at this link.
With less than three months until Election Day on Nov. 3, we have been reflecting on the principles and lessons we take from our post-9/11 military service that we believe have bearing on the upcoming election.
First, our elected officials and the public should understand how important America’s democratic character is to so many military service members. The fundamental proposition that every American citizen has the right to cast a vote in free and fair elections and that, in our nation, the will of our people determines who governs us, has been an essential part of the motivation to serve for so many of us. Some of our brothers and sisters gave their lives to protect this ideal.
As such, we view it as the sacred obligation of our public officials to ensure that every American citizen eligible to vote is able to do so safely and comfortably, with freedom from coercion and fear — and that we as a people can have full confidence that all ballots will be counted in a fair and transparent election.
Second, we have seen first-hand how fragile democracy can be and how much vigilance and effort are required to safeguard it. The COVID-19 pandemic will place unprecedented pressure on the upcoming election and will require public officials to make critical investments to ensure the integrity of the election.
These measures are straight-forward, time-tested and viable, so long as we place the collective good above partisan and personal interest. Credible experts across the political spectrum are in agreement. Here is what must be done:
Every American citizen who is registered to vote should have the opportunity to request and receive an absentee ballot for any reason. That approach has been effective for decades in enabling service members overseas and out of state to have their vote counted. Voters also need ample time to complete the ballot and return it by mail or access a safe and convenient government drop box in which to place it securely.
Currently five states (Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii) have already proven that a more comprehensive approach — whereby a mail-in ballot is automatically sent to every registered voter in that state — is feasible, that this practice expands access and benefits citizens, and that it does not necessarily benefit one political party or another. Going forward, all states should move to this practice.
Given that there are less than 90 days until Nov. 3, no excuse absentee ballots must be the minimum standard for this upcoming election.
Ensuring that every state has sufficient resources to run safe and efficient elections in this environment will require additional funding. More than two months ago, the House passed the Heroes Act, which allots $3.6 billion in funding for states to offer mail-in voting. Currently, that bill is held up in the Senate. It must be passed without delay.
Fund the postal service
For mail-in voting to work, our postal service also must be sufficiently funded. This past spring, Congress passed a $10 billion loan for the U.S. Postal Service, which is in financial distress. The Treasury Department, where that loan is being delayed, must provide access to those funds immediately.
Third, this election will require a new form of service to protect vulnerable populations. Traditionally, many of the volunteers at polling stations have been elderly. Even with wide-spread access to mail-in voting, many citizens will choose to vote in person. Younger citizens, therefore, must step up and relieve high-risk volunteers. Able and willing citizens should contact their local voting registrars to sign up.
In addition, we must keep faith with the many heroes who have labored to overcome our nation’s shameful history of disenfranchisement and intimidation of minority populations at the polls. Many of these populations are also vulnerable to COVID-19. Particular care must be taken to ensure that access — whether via mail-in or in-person voting — is assured in communities with heavy concentrations of minority voters.
Communities with fewer polling stations cannot incur the long lines we saw in Georgia, Kentucky and elsewhere in recent primary elections. That is unacceptable and can be mitigated by encouraging young citizens to volunteer and by providing adequate funding for communities.
Leaders need to speak up
Finally, our service has taught us something about leadership in times of crisis. This is a time for real leadership in word as well as deed. That means tamping down rhetoric around this election being rigged or illegitimate.
Real leadership would involve pointing out the importance of having a free and fair election, taking a data and fact-based posture on how best to achieve that during a grave public health crisis, thoughtfully noting the challenges before us, and elevating the practical and specific solutions we know can ensure election integrity. Any other approach is an abdication of the leadership the moment requires and a willful transgression against one of our most essential democratic rights.
Courageous Americans have risked much on bridges, buses and battlefields so that we can have a government by, of and for all the people of our great nation. Now, let us do our part.
Greg Behrman is a Navy veteran and chief executive of NationSwell. Mary Beth Bruggeman is a Marine veteran and president of The Mission Continues. Wes Moore is an Army veteran and chief executive of the Robin Hood Foundation. Jake Wood is a Marine veteran and chief executive of Team Rubicon. Jeff Eggers is a Navy veteran and managing director of Risk and Return. Nathaniel Fick is a Marine veteran and general manager of security for Elastic. Zach Iscol is a Marine veteran and chief executive of Grid North. Jen Easterly is an Army veteran and former special assistant to the president and senior director of counter-terrorism. Emily Nunes Cavness is an Army veteran and chief executive of Sword and Plough. Jeremy Butler is a Navy veteran and chief executive of IAVA. John Tien is an Army veteran and former senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan for the National Security Council.