BUXTON — I spent the last 10 years of my professional life as an immigration inspector and a Customs and Border Protection officer on the Maine-Quebec border and at Bangor International Airport. In Bangor, I helped to inspect thousands of troops returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and conflicts around the world in which most Americans aren’t even aware we are engaged.

As a Vietnam combat veteran, I could empathize with those young men and women returning home. It seemed to me that, aside from the phenomenon of the ever-jolly “troop greeters” always turned out to wave them off and welcome them back from one deployment after another after another, we hadn’t learned much about their needs since my war. I know very well the kinds of issues we veterans face. We all need to do more for these young men and women than swipe their passports, inspect their customs declarations, thank them for their service and send them on their way.

Veterans have made incredible sacrifices, which means that more than anything, they need to be listened to and have their voices heard in our communities when they return home. What they offer, what they can deliver, is far too important to ignore. But because of frequent relocation, military voters report registration problems far too frequently – nearly twice as often as nonmilitary voters, according to a national survey. I can identify: I became a Mainer because my family moved here while I was overseas, and I returned to a different hometown than the one I had left.

I can think of no better way to invite the re-integration in the democratic process of troops returning to Maine than to implement the automatic voter registration process now under consideration by the Legislature (L.D. 1463).

During the Iraq War, the United States realized that Iraqi citizens were struggling to keep their voter registrations updated because of conflicts on the ground and assisted in setting up a system similar to automatic voter registration to ensure democratic participation in elections for all eligible Iraqi citizens. Election officials automatically transferred the names of Iraqis from ration lists to voter rolls. As the world’s leading democracy, there is no reason why we should not have this policy implemented on our own shores.

Already in effect in 17 states and the District of Columbia, automatic voter registration would help active-duty members of the military and veterans keep their voter registration accurate and up to date so that their voices are heard in our democracy. Without changing the current, all-paper system for eligible citizens to register to vote, automatic voter registration creates a data transfer system to safeguard our voter rolls and ensure that our elections are free and fair. It securely and efficiently registers eligible citizens to vote when they get or renew a driver’s license or change their address with a state agency like Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

There is no question that automatic voter registration makes common sense for those who care about freedom and security. Automatic voter registration modernizes our elections and makes our voting systems more secure by improving the timeliness and accuracy of our voter rolls, and makes our voting systems less vulnerable to foreign meddling. Our election officials can better protect our voter rolls when they are free of errors and contain the most up-to-date information on eligible voters. Automatic voter registration helps secure our election system by ridding our voter rolls of duplicates and voters registered at incorrect addresses, while also ensuring that every eligible citizen is able to vote and safeguarding our system against hacking and tampering.

Automatic voter registration is one step that we can take to serve those who serve or have served us. For these young people, always on the move while in uniform, it is far too easy for their most important right as citizens – the right to vote – to get lost in the shuffle. I think that we can all agree that it is time for Maine to fix that.

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