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Military veterans express concerns over voting restrictions

Many military veterans are expressing concerns over the security of our voting system and American Democracy.

Most military service members cast their votes via mail while deployed or stationed overseas. The first time I cast my vote for an elected official, I was stationed onboard the USS FLETCHER DD992 in the Middle East. For most active duty and retired or separated service members, the postal service is the main line of communication with the outside world.

Air Force veteran and military activist Kathryn L. Smith (Arizona) recalls her experience with mail-in ballots, expressing to me that she has serious concerns about November’s election cycle security.

“As a military veteran, I always voted by mail. I never worried that my vote would be counted or if I have a voice,” Kathryn said. “After my service, I voted in-person and made it a point to thank the poll workers for their part in our democracy. In 2016, I signed up to be a poll watcher and watched on voting day and during a county recount. This year, I’m watching again with my head on a swivel because I’m really afraid about outside influences in the process.”

Like many other military veterans I’ve shared scuttlebutt (rumors or gossip) with over a cup of joe, the common consensus is that most of us feel as if this is all rigged and that we must brace for impact from bad news. From rumors of litigation potentially being utilized in efforts to delay announcing the new president, to civil unrest from militias ready to start the next Civil War has every liberal-progressive veteran I know ready to hoist the American flag to half-mast in memorial of freedom and American democracy.

U.S. Navy veteran and social justice activist Ken Aicher (North Carolina) is adamant when he says, “Never in my lifetime did I have to fear that an elected president would seek to undermine an election, until now. It’s nothing more than flies in the face of those of us who took an oath to protect and defend the constitution, only to see a total disregard of that oath by the current president of the United States.”

Recently, when I catch up with my friend, US Marine Corps veteran and fellow Houstonian, Eric Esqueda, and the first thing he says to me is, “I’m concerned, Tasha”.  Like many other progressive military veterans in the state of Texas, we’re borderline panicking over the shakiness of our current voter systems integrity.

Many veterans are disabled and elderly. Some are on oxygen tanks, broken in both body and spirit. They can’t stand in long lines for long periods of time to cast their ballots, while some can hardly stand. They are the men and women who suffer from severe cases of combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with high anxiety and stress levels that make it difficult for them to be in large crowds or hear loud noises. Many lack transportation and the personal assistance needed to get to designated voting locations that are oftentimes miles away from their residence. This is a trying time for those who are bedridden or diagnosed with COVID-19 and other illnesses.

“I think we both know the election security stance that conservatives here [in Texas] have taken,” Eric said. “Especially when it comes to mail-in voting, which by the way could have been the safest way to organize people to vote this year. But with unfounded fears being spread like wildfire, conservatives here are making their constant efforts to privatize the USPS very noticeably. We have now found ourselves at the cusp of putting many potential voters at risk of not having their vote count.”

I learned from Eric that in the past, Houston’s Harris County officials often shift the polling locations around each election cycle. While attending Texas Southern University, we experienced serious issues with our campus being the only voting location for historically Black Third Ward and the surrounding areas, which happens to be a majority-minority and Democratic voter base.

Carnegie Corporation of New York did a feature in November 2019 that listed some common ways that voting rights are undermined across the country. By strategically implementing laws and engaging in activities that make it harder for certain segments of the population to vote, some lawmakers utilize:

Voter ID requirements are used as one way to restrict voters’ ability to cast their ballots. Some may say the simple fix is to just get a government-issued ID. But for people who are economically disenfranchised or even homeless, this opens the door for election officials to use false claims of rampant voter fraud to justify strict requirements like presenting a photo ID. This tactic is often aimed at suppressing the votes of people of color and younger voters, such as college students who may not have a driver’s license or an ID listed as acceptable identification. This is also coupled with laws requiring a physical street address, which can lead to discrimination against groups who are more likely to live in a certain zip code, or who have P.O. Box addresses, such as Native Americans living on reservations.

 The American public is starting to understand the potential extent of Russian interference in the election through hacking, disinformation, and targeting state voting systems.

As my friend Eric mentioned, Polling place closures/consolidations is often a preferred method to suppress votes.  A recent USA Today analysis found that election officials have closed thousands of polling places, largely affecting communities of color. Back in 2019, the feature article highlighted how nearly 1,700 voting precincts in 13 states have been shut down since 2012, with a heavy concentration of precincts being located in Black or Latino communities, after a landmark court decision that removed federal oversight of local voting practices. In Chicago’s Cook County, which has the largest non-Hispanic Black population in the country, election administrators closed or moved 95 polling places.

These restrictive actions are the end result of the Shelby County v. Holder Ruling (133 S. Ct. 2612) – or the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requiring certain states and cities obtain federal approval before changing voting laws and/or practices. After the Shelby Count v. Holder Ruling, targeted communities with a history of voter discrimination were struck down. And Texas saw 750 polling locations closed, Arizona lost 320 while Georgia shut down 214, according to the report “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote.”

A lack of funding for elections is an additional issue that adds fuel to the fire. This inhibits the ability of local authorities to manage elections effectively and ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. Some of these issues were brought to the forefront during the 2000 presidential election in Florida, were the recount process shined a spotlight on issues ranging from flawed ballot designs to voting machines that overheated and failed. Now, the network security of electronic voting machines is weighing heavily on everyone’s minds.

Throw into the pot language barriers, reduced voting hours, poorly trained poll workers, partisan election administrators (or local administrators who are partisan to a particular party/candidates), and voter roll purges — in the process of reviewing voter rolls to remove the duplicate, deceased, and/or convicted felon names, often causes the deletion of millions of eligible voters, which disproportionately impacts communities of color. Providing a safe and accurate count of the votes come November is a serious concern for most veterans I spoke to.

The integrity of the November election is a major concern for many veterans like myself. Various social-political issues that affect our health care through the VA, education, employment, immigration and the right to vote are all at stake. We have served this country honorably, defending both the U.S. Constitution and American democracy from enemies foreign and domestic. Now, we shudder at the idea of our sworn oath to serve and protect the basic rights of American citizens are now being compromised. My family on both sides has served in nearly every military conflict this nation has found itself in. From my great grandfathers in the Army during WWII, my cousins in the Marine Corps during Viet Nam and Desert storm, down to me, an Operation Enduring Freedom veteran — my family and many others have watched fallen comrades pay the ultimate price for what we believe to be freedom. The rise in white supremacy, foreign meddling, gerrymandering, voter purges and baseless voter fraud claims have become increased threats to the American vote. We are not content, and we will not stand for it.