Ex-Defense Secretaries Hagel & Panetta: Our national security requires free and fair elections

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The increase in free nations with governments reflecting the will of the people defined the latter half of the 20th century, because the United States has long provided a global standard for how to conduct free and fair elections. Our unique system has proven to be one of the best ways to promote both our values and national security interests abroad.

And our elections have stood the test of time because regardless of who someone votes for, Americans have had confidence their vote would be counted.

As defense leaders who share a deep commitment to the Constitution and justice for all, we are urging our fellow citizens to share in the patriotic duty of safeguarding free and fair elections during the coronavirus pandemic.


While we come from different parts of the United States and represent different political parties, we share a common concern about the numerous and growing threats to our republic.

We remain united around a common commitment to the American tradition of safe, secure, and legitimate elections. This is why we joined with more than 40 other political, government and civic leaders to establish the National Council on Election Integrity to defend of our elections and uphold the principle that every vote cast in accordance with applicable laws should be counted this year.

In the last few years, we have seen the security and prosperity of the United States face serious threats from adversaries that seek to promote more authoritarian systems as an alternative to democracy.

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The governments of nations like China and Russia have long pointed to the American democratic process and argued to their citizens that the complex and sometimes contradictory parts of our system are an example for why people should give up their freedoms in return for promises of stability and security. They would tell countries that were still deciding which political path to take that our system was messy and unreliable — but our success spoke for itself.

Despite some of the bumps along the road, our system provided the foundation for unmatched economic and military might. But now we face a threat unlike any other. Our standing in the world is being threatened by those who seek to promote fear and uncertainty about our elections.

If fear prevails, the United States could be on a collision course to disaster in November. Our adversaries want a rancorous and divided America on display because it proves their point. We cannot allow that to happen.

Our standing in the world is being threatened by those who seek to promote fear and uncertainty about our elections.

So how do we ensure that everyone’s voice is heard? By making it clear that no matter how someone chooses to cast their ballot, be that by mail or in-person, a fair process governed by the rule of law will determine the outcome. Voters across the political spectrum must have faith in our democratic system and trust that the winner won the election without voter fraud or foul play.

Admittedly, due to the coronavirus pandemic, things will be different this year. More Americans will cast absentee votes, which means it will likely take much longer to determine the results this year than it has in the past. Some states — including many battleground states — cannot begin processing absentee ballots, let alone counting them, until election night. We will have to give election administrators the time they need to accurately do their jobs.

Absentee voting has been standard procedure for our men and women in uniform around the world for over a century. For example, in the 2016 election service members and their families mailed more than 633,000 ballots home.

Voters across the political spectrum must have faith in our democratic system and trust that the winner won the election without voter fraud or foul play.

For many young soldiers, an absentee ballot cast through the mail has been the first vote they have ever cast — all while defending our freedom. It was for both of us: Secretary Panetta cast his vote by mail while serving in the Army in 1964, and Secretary Hagel cast his first vote sitting on top of an armored carrier in Vietnam in 1968.


Nothing is more sacred in our country than the right to free and fair elections. It will be our job as citizens to make sure that neither Democrats nor Republicans try to shut down the counting of votes cast in accordance with state laws. We choose our leaders by counting every vote — that’s what makes our country the example it is for developing democracies.

Shortly before taking office, George Washington wrote of our duty to the nation in a letter to James Madison. He said that “the consciousness of having discharged that duty which we owe to our country is superior to all other considerations.” Today the duty to keep our country free and strong still rests with every citizen, and this November it may be tested. It will be our shared responsibility to live up to the ideals of the founders.

Our country successfully held elections through the Spanish flu of 1918, the Great Depression, and two world wars. We are confident we can do so again during the current pandemic.


As Americans who believe deeply in our democratic processes, we, as part of the National Council on Election Integrity, will work every day to defend this year’s elections and hold them to the highest possible standards. By visiting CountEveryVote.org, you, too, can pledge to defend this year’s election and demand that every vote be counted this November.

What continues to make American democracy a model that our adversaries try to paint as a failure is not a single rule or law; rather, it’s the resilience and determination of the very people that engage in our elections and continue to strive for the more perfect union we have sought since our founding.

Democrat Leon Panetta is a former secretary of the Defense Department, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.

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