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Justice Department moves to counter overseas absentee ballot lag

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As the Nov. 2 midterm election nears, the U.S. Justice Department has stepped in on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of military and overseas voters whose absentee ballots are in danger of not being counted.

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act passed by Congress last year mandates that election officials deliver absentee ballots to overseas and military voters no later than 45 days before Election Day.

But some states and U.S. territories are struggling to get absentee ballots out in time, prompting the Justice Department to act. On Wednesday, for example, the department reached an agreement with election officials in New Mexico to extend the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots. Those received by Nov. 6 will now be counted. Under the agreement, the state also will have to take steps to ensure compliance with MOVE Act regulations for future federal elections.

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The Justice Department has reached similar agreements with Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Nevada, North Dakota and the U.S. Virgin Islands over failure to meet that 45-day deadline, according to an Oct. 12 Justice Department release.

 “The Justice Department is committed to vigorous enforcement of the MOVE Act so that members of the uniformed services, their families and other citizens living overseas are able to exercise their right to vote and know their votes will be counted,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division.

At least 992,000 absentee ballots for overseas and military voters were requsted for the last mid-term election in 2006, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. About one-third of those ballots were successfully cast and counted.

The Justice Department also has filed lawsuits against New York, Wisconsin, and Guam for failure to get ballots to absentee voters at least 45 days before the election. The legal actions are meant to force election offices in those states to count ballots that arrive after the normal absentee ballot deadlines.

Under the MOVE Act, states with primary schedules within that 45-day window can apply for special exemptions.

New York submitted such an application, according to the Justice Department, but failed to mail ballots to its military and overseas citizens by the new Oct. 1 deadline. Of the 62 counties in New York state, nine failed to mail out their ballots in time, including those counties comprising New York City.

While some election authorities have had trouble implementing the MOVE Act, most of the 10,000 American election jurisdictions have successfully implemented the new mandates, ushering in unprecedented reform for overseas and military voters, according to Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the Overseas Vote Foundation.

Among its voting reforms, the MOVE Act mandated that voters be able to request and receive their ballots electronically, something of particular help to troops deployed to warzones where snail mail isn’t always dependable.

There are also express mail options for military voters, as well as emergency back-up ballots available, she said.

Overseas and military voters have unprecedented options for requesting, receiving and casting their ballots in 2010, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said, but such changes are rarely without at least a few hiccups.

“This is a transition year,” she noted. “Nobody’s pointing out the incredible successes.”

For more information on absentee voting, log on to  www.fvap.gov

geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

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