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Opinion: Advocate for military families' right to vote this Memorial Day

Jocelyn Benson

America on Monday will celebrate a unique Memorial Day. In the absence of the parades and other community celebrations that so often mark the holiday, we are exploring new ways to best remember our fallen heroes.

As Michigan’s secretary of state, and the wife of a combat veteran, I invite you to join me in working to ensure service members serving overseas, and their families, can access the most fundamental of their democratic rights: the right to vote.

As part of that effort, I am working with our state Legislature on legislation that would enable our military community to return their ballots through a secure electronic means while stationed overseas.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson holds a press conference Thursday at Cadillac Place in Detroit, to announce plans to improve wait times and services at SOS branches across the state.

My family has personal experience with the difficulties many face when casting their vote while deployed. When my husband was stationed overseas, the ballot he mailed bounced back to him as undeliverable days after the election had finished.   

It is a tragic failure that we have not already updated our elections systems to ensure those fighting to preserve our freedoms can also fully exercise them. And it’s also a tragic failure that the legislation under consideration in our state Legislature does not — despite the pleas of military spouses — recognize that the families of deployed service members deserve the same right to return their ballots electronically so that their votes can be counted.

During recent testimony before the House elections committee I joined with veterans and military spouses to call for legislation to enable the electronic return of ballots for military families serving on overseas orders. The House committee, led by Rep. Julie Calley, wrongly ignored the voices of our community and allowed incomplete legislation to advance. 

Fortunately, state legislators still have the chance to correct this oversight and properly recognize the service, sacrifice and unique role spouses play as part of the military community — and you can help ensure that our legislators do so.

Currently 31 states and the District of Columbia allow electronic ballot submission for service members, their spouses and their of-age dependents. In fact, unless Michigan fixes the legislation before passage, we will be the only state excluding military family members from these protections. This not only sets the legislation up for constitutional challenge, it sends a message that we do not adequately value the sacrifices military families make, or take seriously the responsibility of securing their right to vote.

Senate Bill 117 is waiting to be taken up in a second House committee — Ways and Means — that it must pass through before going to a full vote on the House floor, meaning there are two more opportunities for legislators to fix it. They are being urged to do so by many military members and spouses, who are circulating an online petition that anyone can sign. Michiganians who want to provide additional support can also call their legislators who have yet to vote on the bill, and could improve it. 

The right to vote is the bedrock of our democracy. Let’s take a moment this Memorial Day to ensure no military service members, or their families, wrongly lose that right while serving our country.

Jocelyn Benson is Michigan’s 43rd secretary of state, the author of "State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process," and a military spouse.