When President Donald Trump demands that we "get rid of the ballots," everyone knows exactly what he means. Since last spring, the aspiring tinpot dictator in the White House has spit out daily tweets full of falsehoods about mail ballots, which he calls "awful," "terrible" and "ripe for FRAUD." He pretends to draw a distinction between mail-in ballots and absentee ballots — the method used by him and many others in the White House to vote — but in actual practice, there is no such difference.
Among the malignant effects of that Trump dictate would be the disenfranchisement of millions of American soldiers, their families and other military personnel when the time comes to vote.
It is precisely because so many of our troops and their spouses cast their ballots by mail that we know how safe, secure and generally free from fraud such voting is. As Trump intensified his campaign against mail-in voting, a chorus of former defense officials and retired military officers spoke up against his conspiratorial nonsense.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recalled that he voted by mail for the first time as a young soldier and had observed the process ever since as a political leader and later in the Pentagon.
"I voted while sitting on top of a tank in Vietnam," Hagel told the military publication Task and Purpose. "A lot of guys that I knew in Vietnam were old enough to vote and voted by absentee ballot. I never heard of any problems. I never heard about any issues or anybody charging there was fraud, waste, or abuse in any process that involves voting absentee by mail." As many officers noted sardonically, the system dates back to the Civil War — and nobody worried much about fraud until Trump suddenly realized that he's losing this election.
Should Trump succeed in persuading Republican election officials to discard mail ballots as supposedly being tainted by fraud, they will have to exclude the vast majority of military votes. According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, more than two-thirds of those in military service who voted in the 2018 midterms submitted their absentee ballots by mail. Election officials sent more than 655,000 ballots to military and overseas voters two years ago and got more than 344,000 back — of which only 6 percent were rejected for any reason.
Twenty years ago, the question of counting military ballots arose during the catastrophic recount in Florida. With a razor-thin margin between Al Gore and George W. Bush that would determine the national election's outcome, some Democratic lawyers sought to disqualify hundreds of absentee ballots that had arrived late from overseas. When the Bush team realized that the ballots to be discarded came from military bases, their reaction was explosive — and they weren't alone. The suggestion that military votes would be thrown out was so toxic that Gore's running mate, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman, repudiated his own legal team on national television.
Back then, and ever since, the assumption was always that military voters are conservative and, therefore, Republican (although as retired Gen. Wes Clark once observed, no institution in American life is more thoroughly "socialist" in caring for its constituents than the United States armed forces). But with the advent of Donald Trump, that may no longer be a smart bet.
The most recent poll released by the Military Times in August showed a small lead for Joe Biden among military households — a "massive shift" from the 20-point lead that Trump enjoyed among those same voters in 2016. Moreover, there is an increasing sense of disgust with Commander Bonespurs in the military. The same poll found no less than 42 percent saying they "strongly disapprove" of his performance as president. (Perhaps they've figured out that he's trying to stop them from voting.)
Will Republicans who once expressed outrage over the notion that military votes would not be counted — because they arrived after a legal deadline — now let Trump get away with tossing them out because of a bogus suspicion of "fraud"? Yes, because most of them are cowards, not patriots.
But we can hope that among officers and troops, the courage to stand up for the Constitution will remain strong — and that their strength will inspire at least some Republicans to put country first.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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