Opinion: The U.S. Presidential Election and Doing our Part

With just a few months left until the U.S. presidential election, there are a long list of things that threaten the vote, from election meddling by U.S. adversaries via disinformation and other methods, to our own political divisiveness. We’re looking for ways to focus on the greater good, so when The Cipher Brief ran across this piece, we asked the authors – all veterans – if we could republish their thoughts. Their overwhelming message: Americans have sacrificed for our democratic ideals. It’s time to do our part.

by veterans Greg Behrman, Mary Beth Bruggeman, Jeremy Butler, Emily Nunez Cavness, Jen Easterly, Jeff Eggers, Nate Fick, Zachary Iscol, Wes Moore, John Tien and Jake Wood.

OPINION — Why do young men and women serve in our military in a time of war? Each of us has done so, and we each have our own reasons. But, when we peel the individual layers, we find a core motivation: a shared belief in America’s democratic ideals of equality and freedom.

Throughout our history, at places like Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Normandy, hundreds of thousands of American service members gave what Lincoln described as “the last full measure of devotion” for those ideals. At places like Helmand, Fallujah and Tal Afar, some of our brothers and sisters gave their lives in service of those ideals. We believe that upholding these ideals is a sacred responsibility.

We have been thinking about what it means to do right by this responsibility in the context of the approaching federal election — now twelve weeks away. Herein, we offer four key points — all informed by the lessons, experiences and principles from our own post-9/11 military service — that we view as essential in meeting the moment, keeping faith and doing our part to safeguard American democracy.

First, we must all embrace a shared vision for what it means to conduct a free and fair election: every American citizen has the right to cast a vote and that they are able to do so safely and comfortably — with freedom from coercion, fear or physical risk — and that we as a people can have full confidence that all ballots will be counted in a fair, efficient and transparent manner.

Second, through our service in foreign lands, we have seen first-hand how fragile democracy can be and how much effort is required to protect it. The COVID-19 pandemic will place unprecedented pressure on the upcoming election and will summon public officials to make critical investments and provisions to ensure the integrity of the election. These measures are straight-forward, time-tested, and viable, so long as we move efficiently and 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 (an approach referred to as “no excuse absentee ballots” that has been effective for decades in enabling service members overseas and out of state to have their vote counted), ample time to complete it, 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 just about ten weeks until November 3rd, no excuse absentee ballots must be the minimum and necessary standard for this upcoming election.

Ensuring that all 50 states have sufficient funds to run safe and efficient elections in this environment will require additional funding for states. Three months ago, the House passed HR 6800 (the Heroes Act), which allots $3.6 billion in funding for states to effectively offer mail-in voting. Currently, that bill is being held up in the Senate. In whatever form, Congress must move to allocate and distribute those funds to states urgently, without delay.

For mail-in voting to work at scale, our postal service must also 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 in order to protect vulnerable populations. Traditionally, many of the volunteers manning local 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, who are more vulnerable and may choose to stay at home. Able and willing citizens should contact their local voting registrars for ways to volunteer on Election Day.

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 most 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 kind of long lines we saw in Georgia, Kentucky and elsewhere in the most recent primary election. That is unacceptable and can be mitigated by encouraging young citizens to volunteer and by providing adequate funding for communities to fully resource polling stations.

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 means doubling down on the importance of having a free and fair election, taking a data-based posture on how best to achieve that during a grave public health crisis, thoughtfully noting the challenges before us, and implementing the solutions we know can ensure election integrity. And, from this day until the final vote is counted, it involves a commitment to fully accept and honor the results of that election. To do otherwise would be a willful transgression against one of our most essential democratic rights.

These are clear and viable steps that our leaders and fellow citizens can and must take. Courageous Americans throughout the ages have risked much on bridges, busses 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.

Read more expert-driven national security insight, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief