Congress must act to protect the legitimacy of the election this fall

Congress must act to protect the legitimacy of the election this fall
© Greg Nash

Nothing is more sacred in our democratic republic than the right to free and fair elections. But that right is being threatened by those who seek to promote fear and division. If fear prevails, the United States could be on a collision course to disaster in November. We cannot allow that to happen. Our nation is in an unprecedented situation. While state election officials have tried their best to hold primaries as the coronavirus pandemic rages, there have been major problems with the operations of several contests, from Georgia to Wisconsin, and plenty of challenges in others.

The causes of these problems were largely predictable. Polling stations were shut down, often without notice, due to a lack of workers, meaning long lines at those polling stations that were open. There were faulty and untested equipment and poll workers not knowing how to operate them. There were delayed results and absentee ballot requests not processed due to current staffing levels. None of this is acceptable in 2020.

Local and state officials from both parties know best what assistance they need to prepare for the election. They have made their calls clear for new funding, including federal funding, to help make voting safe and secure. The $400 million they have received so far from Congress unfortunately  does not even begin to cover all of the costs to make voting safe.

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Imagine for a second what could happen without adequate preparation and funding to make that possible. We are experiencing a resurgence of the coronavirus. What if that were to worsen this fall during the election? The problems we have seen across the nation this year could occur on a massive scale in November, leading to widespread disenfranchisement, delayed results, and a questionable outcome. The fallout from an election that Americans view as illegitimate would shatter confidence and trust in our democratic system. That kind of chaos is simply not an option.

Adding to the threat are the foreign adversaries up to mischief and again trying to interfere in our elections. They will be certain to pounce on any opportunity to make an already chaotic situation worse. If we fail again to protect our most cherished right to free and fair elections, we will send a message to the world that the United States cannot protect itself. So how do we protect ourselves from a potential election disaster? There is a full range of options that election officials are exploring but, to successfully use them, they need more funding. Absentee voting has been standard procedure for our men and women in uniform around the world.

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cast his first vote sitting on top of an armored carrier in Vietnam in 1968. Absentee voting has been the safe and acceptable way for those defending our freedom to have their say in the future direction of our nation. Americans have increasingly embraced absentee voting, early voting, no excuse mail voting, and other alternative voting methods. None of this has been controversial. What has changed? The answer is partisan politics. We cannot allow this, however, to blind us to what must be done. Thankfully, Republican and Democratic governors and other leaders are stepping up to provide voters with the options that best work for their states. Their efforts deserve all of our support.

The reality is that many states simply do not have experience with larger numbers of voters casting absentee ballots. But almost every state now has an overwhelming uptick in requests for ballots. In Indiana, Maryland, District of Columbia, and other states, this has led to the failure to deliver them to some voters in time. This injustice must not be tolerated and can be corrected by November with financial support from Congress.

Other options like increased early voting and safe voting in person are just as important and just as resource intensive. Outreach to younger and less vulnerable poll workers must be done to help fill the increasing vacancies among traditional volunteers. The public must also be made aware of the options to participate and those steps necessary for each to work.

Despite the Civil War, the Spanish Flu, the World Wars, and other difficult times in our history, our nation has successfully maintained an unbroken succession of citizens defending the future of their country by exercising their right to vote. The torch of responsibility has now been passed on to all of us to ensure that every eligible voter across the nation has the right to a free and fair election to decide the future of the United States.

Chuck Hagel is a former secretary of the Defense Department and former Republican senator from Nebraska. Leon Panetta is a former secretary of the Defense Department and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Tim Roemer is a former United States ambassador to India and a former Democratic representative from Indiana. Zach Wamp is the former Republican representative from Tennessee. Roemer and Wamp are chairs and Hagel and Panetta are members of the Issue One Reformers Caucus.