By Jack Minor
While much of the media attention has been recently focused on the case involving the New Black Panthers and the Department of Justice’s handling of that case, another voting rights issue is raising concerns for this coming November. The past several election cycles there been cases of military ballots that were discarded because they either arrived too late or service members did not receive their ballots in time. With so many military personnel deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq the issues surrounding military ballots has only gotten worse .
To help resolve these issues, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which requires ballots to be mailed 45 days prior to an election beginning this November. However with the deadline fast approaching, many states have indicated they will be unable to comply with the new requirements and have applied for waivers. Steve Moreno, the Weld County Clerk and Recorder said Colorado has applied for such a waiver.
A 2009 PEW Center report found that more than a third of the states either do not give military voters stationed abroad enough time to vote or were at high risk of not providing enough time. Colorado is among those states and is listed as giving the military “time to vote, but with concerns.” the report says military members overseas in Colorado are at risk, because they are afforded fewer than five days of extra time to accommodate the potential of delays in the mail.
Moreno said that while the Colorado Secretary of State has requested a waiver to comply with the deadlines of the law, Weld County is on track to meet the 45 day timetable. Moreno says one of the keys to this is that the county is able to produce what he calls “ballots on demand.” Moreno said “we can print them as soon as we proof them, when you get them from the printer you don’t get them until 30 days prior to the election.” When it comes to counting all votes Moreno says they do everything they can to lean in the direction of the voter. He gave an example where a voter overseas was near a fax machine. The elections department faxed the voter a form that allowed him to waive the secrecy of his ballot. The voter was then able to fax his completed ballot on election day. During the last election cycle, Weld County had almost 400 ballots received from military personnel overseas.
Moreno also told the Gazette that Weld County will be testing a new online voting system for military personnel this year. According to Moreno, when he heard the state was looking for a couple of counties to help pilot the program he volunteered Weld County. At this time they do not have any details as to how the process will be implemented.
The issue of military ballots could be especially important this year in close races. In Minnesota over 500 military votes were discarded for arriving after the election. Had those votes been counted it could have made a difference in the closely contested Senate race.
M. Eric Eversole, director of the Military Voter Project who also served as a former litigation attorney in the Voting Section of the U.S. Department of Justice expressed concerns about the government’s willingness to protect military voters. In an opinion piece in the Washington Times, Eversole stated in 2008 more than 17,000 military ballots were rejected for arriving after the election deadline.
According to Eversole, Justice Department officials have indicated they are not going to hold states to the 45 day requirement but will instead use discretion in the law to issue waivers. He says this provision in the law is being misused to circumvent Congress’ intent in passing the law. “The limited waiver was intended to address situations in which a state provides military voters with 45 days to vote but did so by adding days after the election.” He went on to say that the Voting Section “has continued to advocate a position that would grant waivers freely and even grant them if a state failed to provide a military voter with 45 days to receive and return his or her ballot.”