A group of high-profile veterans and defense leaders who last fall lobbied for military voters’ access to the polls is now shifting their campaign to ensuring free and fair elections for all Americans.

Operation Protect Democracy, which grew out of the Count Every Hero Campaign founded last year, is calling for veterans to take a key role in election reform across the country and ensuring that all eligible voters have access to ballots in federal, state and local elections.

Organizers said they were inspired to shift the message in part because of widespread misinformation about the 2020 presidential election results, and the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“The fact that veterans participated in that was troubling for us,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Tony Zinni, chairman of the group. “And of late, legislation seems to be proliferating to try to restrict eligible voters in many ways and make it more difficult to vote.

“These things really prompted us to say let’s keep this nonpartisan group together,” said Zinni, whose final tour of duty was running U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “We honestly felt the American people would look to us to make sure that we’re sending the right message, and showing that we support and defend the Constitution.”

The group — which includes former Army Secretary Luis Caldera, former Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey — is planning public awareness efforts on voting rights, voting opportunities and civic literacy.

They also have pledged to work for “secure elections free of foreign interference” and “transparency and effective oversight of the electoral system” through advocacy and lobbying efforts.

“We proved over nearly 250 years now that our way of government is intended to be self-correcting and self-healing,” said retired Gen. John Jumper, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force. “But that requires confidence and requires participation by a citizenry that is well informed.”

Although group members describe themselves as “cross-partisan,” the group is backing the Democratic-backed For the People Act, currently pending in Congress. The legislation has been hailed by President Joe Biden as needed reforms to the country’s election processes but attacked by Republicans as a partisan “power grab” by their political opponents.

Jumper said the goal isn’t to back any one party or plan, but to start a broader conversation on election improvements.

“We are non-partisan,” he said. “We formed [this group] to ensure that the military votes were counted, and in doing so we found that there were obstacles to voting. We all support the kind of legislation that enables access rather than builds obstacles to citizens rights to vote.”

More information on the new campaign is available at the group’s web site.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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