A protester walks past the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.

A protester walks past the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. AP Photo / Patrick Semansky

Retired Generals and Service Chiefs Launch 'Operation Protect Democracy' in Wake of Capitol Attack

Group plans to advocate for increased voter access at the federal and state level. But will the legislatures listen?

The breach of the U.S. Capitol in January and subsequent efforts by states across the U.S. to restrict voting access has spurred a group of retired senior military officials to launch their own counteroffensive: Operation Protect Democracy. 

The group formed last year to protect mail-in military ballots and ensure they were included in the presidential election, under the name “Count Every Hero.” After the attack on the Capitol, they realized there was more to be done, said Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command.

The group will now focus on restoring confidence in the voting system and work to increase civic engagement and voter access. It is also targeting political corruption and misinformation campaigns. 

“Our democratic republic is in peril and we must act to restore Americans’ faith in each other and the ideals of a government truly of, by, and for the people,” the group said in a statement announcing its expanded mission.

“The fact that veterans and active duty members participated was troubling for us,” Zinni said. “And then, of late, the legislation that seems to be proliferating to try to restrict eligible voters in many ways and make it more difficult to vote” prompted them to re-group. 

“There are some 250 different laws at present that are either under consideration, a few passed at the state level in 43 different states, that in one way, shape or form would somehow impact or limit people's ability, eligible voters’ ability to vote. And that's just very, very worrisome,” said former Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James, who served during the Obama administration. 

The group is planning to conduct a social media campaign, write op-eds and through a vast network of veterans in every state, find ways to engage with lawmakers at the federal and state level. 

They know they have an uphill battle. While the voting access group is non-partisan, voter access itself has become a partisan issue. 

For example, a House bill to make it easier to register to vote, including an across-the-board requirement that military mail-in ballots be sent 45 days before an election, has 222 Democratic sponsors but not a single Republican backer, according to Congress.gov. 

Many of the state-level bills restricting voter access that the group wants to address have been introduced and passed in Republican-controlled legislatures. 

“All of these things tend to be heavily politicized in one way or another. And we're very, very conscious of that,” Zinni said.  

In addition to Zinni and James, the current members include Steve Abbot, who served as the deputy homeland security advisor under President George W. Bush and previously led European Command; former Army secretary Louis Caldera, former Navy secretary Sean O’Keefe; former Army chief of staff George Casey; former Coast Guard commandant Jim Loy; and former Air Force chief of staff John Jumper.