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The Disfranchisement of Our Military Voters

Time and again, Eric Holder’s Justice Department and its Civil Rights Division has shown how highly partisan it is. From its dismissal of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case, to its harassment of jurisdictions with voter ID laws, the Division has proven that its far-left liberal ideology determines whether it will enforce (or not enforce) the law. Now it is ignoring the plight of military voters.

The Division once again revealed its true colors in several recent cases to enforce the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (Motor Voter). Keep in mind that in 2009, shortly after the Obama administration took over, the Division dismissed (without explanation) a lawsuit filed by the Bush administration against Missouri under Motor Voter because the state was not removing from its registration rolls voters who had died or moved away.

When Congress defunded ACORN in 2009, liberal groups such as Demos and the NAACP pressured Justice to mount an aggressive campaign to force states to provide more extensive voter-registration services at welfare offices, health clinics, and social-services offices than states were already providing. In early 2011, Demos and the NAACP started to see the fruits of their labor.

The Justice Department filed its first Motor Voter lawsuit against Rhode Island in March. The Division followed up with a lawsuit against Louisiana in July. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez justified the lawsuits by stating, “[t]he voting process begins with registration, and it is essential that all citizens have unfettered access to voter-registration opportunities.”

Yet, neither lawsuit attempts to protect “all” citizens. Both cases focus only on the voter services being provided at welfare and other social services offices. In other words, the Division is not trying to protect “all” citizens, but only those who depend on government entitlements -- who overwhelmingly support Democrats.

What about the other offices covered by Motor Voter? Motor Voter requires states to “jointly develop and implement procedures” with the Department of Defense (DOD) to provide voter registration at all military recruitment offices. The MOVE Act of 2009 authorized DOD to similarly designate offices on all military bases as “voter registration agencies.”

But, perhaps not surprisingly, the administration’s concern about the supposedly low number of voter registrations coming out of welfare offices does not extend to the much lower number of registrations received from recruitment or on-base voting assistance offices. This at a time when the latest data on the turnout of eligible military voters show that, in the 2010 elections, only a dismal 4.6 percent cast absentee ballots that were counted.

Nor should there be any doubt that DOD is the worst offender of Motor Voter. In 2010, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reported that military recruitment offices submitted only 31,712 registration applications to election officials nationwide from approximately 5,000 offices that recruited 281,233 military personnel.

In other words, these military recruitment offices averaged approximately 6 applications per office for the entire year. Compare this to the 1.1 million registration applications from public assistance offices

On the individual state level, the EAC data is more alarming. The data shows that 14 states received fewer than 100 total registration applications from their recruitment offices, even though many of these states have hundreds of military recruiting offices and sign up thousands of military recruits each year.

For example, state officials in Georgia received only 35 applications from recruitment offices in 2010. Similarly, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina all received fewer than 50 applications from their recruitment offices. Florida received only 241 registration applications, even though military recruitment offices see tens of thousands of potential recruits each year.

DOJ sued Rhode Island because it was concerned that only 707 applications had been received from public assistance offices. But zero applications were received from military recruitment offices in Rhode Island. Similarly, DOJ sued Louisiana, where more than 7,200 applications were received from public assistance and disability services offices. Yet the Department seems unconcerned that only 1,500 applications were received from recruitment offices.

What about the on-base voting assistance offices? While federal law required DOD to create these offices on every installation before the 2010 election, DOD waited until Dec. 2, 2010 -- a month after the mid-term congressional elections and more than a year after the MOVE Act was passed -- to issue a regulation directing the military services to designate “Installation Voter Assistance Offices” on all military bases. However, it is unclear whether such offices were created on all military installations, or if the offices that were created even complied with Motor Voter.

To the contrary, given DOD’s past performance, it is highly unlikely that any of these on-base voter assistance offices are keeping detailed records regarding the number of voters who complete or decline voter registration assistance -- a clear violation of Motor Voter. And while DOJ would have to sue states to force them to comply with the “joint” implementation requirement, making DOD comply with the law doesn’t require a lawsuit -- just action by the commander-in-chief and his secretary of defense to ensure that every service is actually complying with federal law.

Why is this administration applying federal voting laws in a partisan way, and treating military service members as second-class citizens? Rather than protecting their voting rights, the administration is standing on the sidelines as our men and women in uniform have their voices silenced election after election.

Clearly, President Obama and Assistant Attorney General Perez have a different definition of “all” than most Americans do.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Justice Department. Eric Eversole is the Executive Director of the Military Voter Protection Project, a Navy JAG officer, and a former Civil Rights Division lawyer. Their paper on improving the turnout of military voters is available here.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a former Justice Department official and contributor at National Review Online.