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Veterans Need to Be Part of the Fight to Preserve Democracy, Voting Rights According to Advocates

August 24, 2021 by Victoria Turner
The Three Soldiers, a bronze statue by Frederick Hart, on the National Mall. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Jake Harriman, a veteran Marine who was deployed abroad for almost 15 years, did not recognize the country he left to fight for when he returned to the U.S. in 2015. 

During two combat tours in Iraq, the now CEO and founder of More Perfect Union, said he thought the biggest threat to American democracy was downrange from him, “only to realize that it wasn’t going to be violent extremism overseas that defeated our democracy,” he said today at a Brookings Institution two-panel event entitled, “How Veterans Can Protect American Democracy.”

“It was going to be political extremism here at home that was going to defeat us. It was going to be us,” Harriman charged, voicing his frustration at the “harmful duopoly” created by the two political parties running the country. His panel followed one of four other high-ranking veteran speakers – both panels urging veterans to participate in their civic duties to preserve the integrity of the democratic process.

James Loy, a retired admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard and former deputy secretary of Homeland Security lamented that the longstanding, international reputation of the U.S. as the beacon of democracy and hope has been under threat the last couple of years.

“And the last thing we want to do is … tarnish that image by some of the theatrics that we have watched,” he said, like the insurrection against the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.. All veterans on the first panel pointed not only to the January event, but to the disinformation and misinformation campaigns that led up to it, the foreign political interference in the last elections and de-franchising movements by some states in voting laws as threats to the U.S. democracy. 

The four high-ranking veterans are members of Count Every Hero, a cross-partisan organization that initially came together to ensure votes by members of the military were counted. One concern is voting by absentee ballot, which often is the only way deployed military personnel can vote. Some states request ballots be returned before the election date, and some as far as three weeks after, pointed out Tony Zinni, retired four-star United States Marine Corps general. The deadlines are an almost impossible task for soldiers in the midst of a field exercise or deployed on a submarine, added Louis Caldera, former secretary of the army at the Department of Defense.

None of the four veterans wore their uniforms to the event because, Zinni emphasized, they wanted to stress civilian leadership, as their responsibility to protect the U.S. Constitution did not end the moment they took off their uniforms.

According to Caldera, the external threats that need most to be addressed are the foreign interference and cybersecurity incursions into U.S. elections and their administration, emphasizing transparency and constant oversight of the money fueling campaigns, as well as modernizing voting equipment under nonpartisan supervision. 

There are internal threats as well, Caldera cautioned, like misinformation campaigns, but just as frightening could be the potential of gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral redistricting to benefit one party or group of people. Despite a record turnout in the last presidential election, one-third of the country still did not vote. This could be due to misinformation, he explained, or an electoral district that’s not competitive in comparison to another.

Today’s supercomputers have the ability to analyze behavioral data to pinpoint trends in specific groups that will participate in higher numbers, and some lawmakers manipulate voting trends that would benefit their opposing political party, Caldera charged. What instead needs to happen is to protect the “equal political dignity” of every American citizen regardless of economic status, race or ethnicity, or whether they are first-generation American.

“That kind of toying with electoral rules for partisan advantage is wrong,” he said, pointing to the need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which would establish a set of national rules for many voting procedures. The act, expected to be passed in the House on Tuesday, would also reinstate a preclearance process for any changes to voting procedures in states that have had voting issues.

What the U.S. needs, Harriman charged, is veteran leaders who have the commitment to serve and who will put “the needs of the country ahead of [their] party.” 

The grassroots effort Harriman envisions would see veterans emerging as leaders through civic associations and other local organizations.

“This would enable them to use their mission-driven desire to take the next hill [in a peace time sense], and that next hill should be saving our democracy.” 

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