Former Top Military Officials Join Campaign to Restore Confidence in Voting

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northern Nevadans wait to vote in-person at Reed High School in Sparks
In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, mostly masked northern Nevadans wait to vote in-person at Reed High School in Sparks, Nev., prior to polls closing. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

A new awareness campaign is hoping to draw in more veterans who want to be involved in safeguarding the democratic voting process.

Count Every Hero, a nonpartisan organization formed in 2020 to ensure service members and their families could participate in U.S. elections through the absentee ballots, launched "Operation Protect Democracy" on Thursday. It is a campaign that encourages veterans and everyday citizens to engage in restoring confidence in the electoral process -- especially following the Jan. 6 events at the U.S. Capitol.

"We were so outraged on January 6, that we're willing to ... do something," said John Jumper, a retired general and former Air Force chief of staff under the George W. Bush administration.

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"We honestly felt the American people would look to us as former senior leaders in the military, both civilian and uniform, to make sure that we're sending the right message," said Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general and former commander overseeing operations in the Middle East under the Clinton administration, said during a virtual media event. "I think we're gonna see more [people] willing to step up and take more action."

The campaign hinges on six principles: help secure elections free of foreign interference; lobby on behalf of equal access to the polls for all eligible voters; seek accountability of elected officials; incorporate all American voters directing the country's future; promote transparency and effective oversight of the electoral system; and support civic literacy to build an informed, engaged and expanded electorate, according to a news release from the organization.

"We want to try to help do our part to restore faith in democracy, encourage participation and safeguard the access for all eligible Americans to vote -- not just our military, but everybody, in flexible ways," said Deborah Lee James, who served as secretary of the Air Force under the Obama administration.

Others involved in the campaign include Luis Caldera, the 17th secretary of the Army; Sean O'Keefe, 69th secretary of the Navy; retired Adm. Steve Abbot, former deputy commander of U.S. European Command; and retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, who is also a former acting secretary of Homeland Security.

The campaign will include letters to lawmakers, editorial pieces in major newspapers, and video campaigns promoted on social media websites, said Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine Corps officer and spokesman for the organization.

In a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, the former senior officials said their new efforts go beyond the political fray of conservative versus liberal or Republicans versus Democrats.

"We're going to be accused of being political, we realize that, and that people will come at this from political motivation," said Zinni, who chairs the organization.

"[We need] to constantly emphasize the foundation from where we are bringing this, and that is based on the principles and democratic processes that our country was founded on," he said. "These are constitutional issues."

The organization is endorsing the "For The People Act" for that reason, the members said.

The bill, introduced in January, aims to expand voting rights, limit gerrymandering and fight special interest groups from influencing legislative practices and policies, among other things.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on voting rights, requiring the Pentagon to better track absentee and military ballots from overseas.

"We think that part of what led to the polarization that we are in today is that we need electoral reform," Caldera said. "We need more transparency and accountability; we need measures that counter disinformation. … We believe that to strengthen and restore our democracy, we need an active and engaged citizenry."

The group is also going to engage in local issues, where they say veterans can have a substantial impact.

"There are some 250 different laws at present that are either under consideration [or] a few have passed at the state level in 43 different states that in one way, shape or form would somehow impact or limit people's ability to vote," James said. "And that's just very, very worrisome."

Military absentee votes were among those challenged in the numerous lawsuits following the 2020 election. And civil-rights advocates and progressive lawmakers have taken issue with Georgia's new election law, which shortens the time voters can request and send in absentee ballots and limits the number of locations where voters can drop off their ballots, among other changes.

"We are willing to speak to things in specific states and to identify individuals, from veterans of service and [those with] good government backgrounds, [who] will be allies in bringing that message locally," Caldera said.

"Anything within the respective legislative initiatives in any state, whether it's federal- or state-oriented, that either limits the access or erodes the integrity of the electoral process, is what will motivate us," O'Keefe said. "[It's] the very essence of what this democratic experiment is all about, is the ability to access and have confidence that you're accessing it with integrity on your voting right. That's something everybody can get behind, regardless of whether you want to express a political position or not."

Service members living outside their home states and U.S. citizens stationed abroad can register to vote and request an absentee ballot through the Federal Voting Assistance Program's website at FVAP.gov.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

Related: New Executive Order Requires Pentagon to Track Military Absentee Ballots

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