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States blasted for late absentee ballots

Oct. 12, 2012 - 02:58PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 12, 2012 - 02:58PM  |  
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A group of key lawmakers want assurances from the Defense and Justice departments that the rights of military and overseas citizens who vote absentee will be protected in the Nov. 6 elections.

"We are concerned that, absent prompt and effective remedial action, some men and women in uniform will be deprived of the 45-day window to vote guaranteed" by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, stated an Oct. 11 letter signed by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Rep. Daniel E. Lungren, R-Calif., chairman of the House Administration Committee; and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Meanwhile, Justice Department officials have filed a lawsuit against the state of Vermont alleging election officials violated the law by not sending out absentee ballots soon enough for military and overseas voters — the latest in a string of complaints filed this year against states for that reason.

The lawmakers' letter cited reports that jurisdictions in Vermont, Michigan, Mississippi and Wisconsin had failed to mail absentee ballots to service members by the Sept. 22, 2012, deadline established by the MOVE Act. That date, 45 days before the Nov. 6 elections, is designed to give military members and their family members who vote by absentee ballot — either within the U.S. or overseas — as well as U.S. citizens living overseas a reasonable time window to receive and return their ballots.

To fix the problem, the congressmen stated, these jurisdictions should extend the deadline for accepting military and overseas ballots by the same number of days as the ballots were mailed late.

"While implementation and enforcement of the MOVE Act appear on course as an improvement over the poor performance we saw in the 2010 elections, we are concerned about the currently reported shortcomings," the congressmen wrote. "If any element of local, state or federal government does not abide by the MOVE Act, the result should not ever be the disenfranchisement of any member of the armed services."

The congressmen asked both departments about their policies for verifying that jurisdictions have sent out ballots, and when they became aware that jurisdictions in those four states had not mailed their ballots until after Sept. 22. They also asked for information about actions to remedy the MOVE Act violations.

Enforcement of the MOVE Act is a Justice Department.

On Oct. 11, the same day the letter was sent, Justice officials filed a lawsuit against Vermont and its secretary of state, who is in charge of elections, alleging that at least 191 absentee ballots — 21 percent of the 894 absentee ballot requests received — were mailed after Sept. 22, based on reports provided by state election officials to Justice. The ballots were transmitted between Sept. 24 and Oct. 2.

Vermont held a primary election on Aug. 28, among the latest in the country, and the results were disputed, according to the Justice Department complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for Vermont. The Vermont Superior Court in Washington County ordered a recount, and the winner was declared on Sept. 18. The ballot was not finalized until Sept. 20.

Lawsuits also were filed earlier this year against Michigan and Wisconsin, alleging election officials had failed to mail absentee ballots at least 45 days before their primaries. The lawsuits required the states to closely monitor their election officials and provide reports to Justice to ensure that the ballots were sent out on time for the Nov. 6 elections.

The congressmen also asked Defense Department officials whether they have established installation voting assistance offices at every installation where they are required. It is the service branches' responsibility to establish these offices, according to defense policy. A recent DoD Inspector General report stated the IG office was unable to contact installation voting assistance offices at almost half of all military installations.

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