Certainly the results of the national elections last month -- and most specifically in Florida -- have given new meaning to the concept that "every vote counts."
There are about 1.4 million members of the armed forces on active duty serving all over the world. And they vote in large numbers. Typically, about 50 percent of eligible voters in our country actually go to the polls and vote. The military percentage is typically much greater -- about 63 to 65 percent. Many of them vote by absentee ballot.
The services have always had programs to encourage their members to participate in the election process at the ballot box. They are not permitted to participate in other activities such as speaking at political rallies, etc. My biased bones tell me that this year's presidential election saw a significant military interest in voting.
It is generally recognized that many military members, although unable to express their feelings publicly, have a distain for the Clinton/Gore administration. They reflect on President Clinton's evasion of service during the conflict in Vietnam. They perceived a callous disrespect for military members in the early days of the administration. And many were disgusted to learn the Commander-in Chief was discussing Bosnian military operations with a congressman, while at the same time receiving sexual favors from a twenty-something female intern.
Many service men and women did appreciate that candidate Gore served in Vietnam -- albeit behind the lines, serving as a reporter, and coming home after only five months rather than the twelve months that others served. I sense they were disappointed though when they heard that the Gore team sought to invalidate hundreds of military absentee ballots in Florida on technicalities. They were concerned.
How do military men and women get to vote by absentee ballot anyway? There are several ways.
I entered the United States Air Force from my home in Pennsylvania. Therefore, Pennsylvania was my official "home of record" and I voted in their elections always by absentee ballot. That is one way to establish an official residence for voting purposes. There are others.
For example, a military man or woman may elect a new official state of record by registering in a spouse's home state. Or they may purchase a home near their duty station and thereby gain official residence status. Any of these methods qualify them to vote by absentee ballot.
Interestingly, North Carolina is very "military friendly" when it comes to voting. Any man or woman in uniform serving in the state of North Carolina may register to vote in our elections. For example, a soldier assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division living in the barracks at Ft. Bragg may be an official resident of North Dakota; however, if he chooses to do so, he may register AND vote in North Carolina.
That same soldier must meet a few requirements established by the state of North Carolina. He must be eighteen years of age or older, not a felon, and must have resided in North Carolina for at least 30 days. While ordinary citizens of this state must register at least 25 days prior to an election, a military member may register right up to and on election day if he or she is physically outside of the county on military duties.
We are now painfully aware that not all military absentee ballots are necessarily recorded as votes. For example, in Florida those without postmarks may or may not have been counted depending on the county or precinct. Or, if there was doubt about a witness the ballot may have been placed in the not counted column.
Like millions of Americans, I was appalled to hear reports of Florida military absentee ballots being tossed out for lack of a postmark, while I observed canvassing boards review other machine-cast ballots with a magnifying glass to see if the "chad was possibly dimpled" and should thereby count as a valid vote. Frankly, that process strains credulity.
Again, we should be proud of North Carolina's treatment of our men and women in uniform. We have no requirement for a postmark. And since many serving onboard our Navy ships at sea, or in remote locations such as Kosovo, getting a postmark is not as simple as walking down the street to the Post Office here at home.
So what does this all mean anyway? It means we still have a marvelous democracy. We still have military members serving their country at home and abroad. They still believe their vote counts. And they will continue to vote in large numbers in the election years ahead.
Most importantly, in America we let our democratic processes resolve our disputes. We do not have a military in the streets attempting to install their favorite candidate. This is the sixth in a series of monthly columns written by retired U.S. Air ForceLt. Gen. Robert D. Springer. Springer is the president of NovaLogic Systems Inc., of Calabasas, Calif., which provides integrated PC software solutions to the defense community and others in the areas of simulation, mission editing, distributive mission training and planning, terrain database modeling and visualization. Gen. Springer is also a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.
In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.
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