La. overseas voters have extra hurdle

It is election season again, which means military voters get to struggle through voter registration forms, mail delays and concerns about whether their ballots will return in time to be counted. But in Louisiana, the unique electoral process poses specific issues for military voters. And that state’s elections are even more important as the race for U.S. senator may determine which political party controls the Senate. If that election is close, the approximately 17,600 active military personnel from Louisiana, at least 4,400 of whom are likely overseas, may be the deciding factor. For these servicemembers, here’s what you need to know.

Louisiana uses a primary system affectionately called the “Cajun Primary.” In the rest of the country, voters will vote on Nov. 4 for candidates that already won primaries. But in Louisiana, all the candidates from all the parties will be on a single ballot. Eligible voters can vote in this election for a candidate of any party, just like any other general election. And, after tallying the vote, if one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the total vote, he or she is declared the winner. This election, in essence, serves as both the primary and the general election.

But if no candidate acquires more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off election will be held on Dec. 6. This year, there will almost certainly be a run-off for U.S. senator because there are several strong candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The problem with that system, however, is that it doesn’t provide enough time for overseas military personnel to get the run-off election ballot and return it in time for the ballot to be counted. In 2008, National Defense Committee, Reserve Officers Association, and a broad group of military voter advocacy organizations coalesced to form the Alliance for Military and Overseas Voting Reform. This Alliance successfully fought to enact the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), which requires States to send absentee ballots to military voters at least 45 days before the election. But if there is a run-off election in Louisiana, the Dec. 6 date is only 32 days after the Nov. 4 election — not enough days to get new ballots out to military voters in time to return them.

Fortunately, working with the Federal Voting Assistance Program in the Department of Defense, Louisiana officials came up with a workable solution to ensure the state’s military voters still have adequate opportunity to participate in any run-off election: the Instant Run-Off Ballot, or IRB.

This year, Louisiana military and overseas voters will receive two ballots for the Nov. 4 election: one white, one green. The white ballot is the “Cajun Primary” ballot to vote for a single candidate in each race, and the green ballot is for any run-off election that is needed. On the green ballot, voters rank the candidates by number according to their preference for which candidate should win that election. The remaining candidate that the voter ranked highest will get that voter’s vote if there’s a run-off election.

With the Louisiana “Cajun Primary” Nov. 4, Louisiana election officials will send out both the white and green ballots by Sept. 20. If they haven’t already, Louisiana military voters should request their absentee ballots as soon as possible by filling out the Federal Post Card Application; or better yet, go online to www.FVAP.gov to fill it out.

Additionally, Louisiana set up its own online voter registration portal and absentee ballot application portal that military voters can use, and may be able to file their registrations and applications online without having to send by mail.

Our men and women in uniform sacrifice so much to keep us safe and secure. We must ensure that their right to vote is protected. But, it is a two-way street: Louisiana must ensure that ballots are sent overseas in compliance with federal law and servicemembers need to make the effort to vote.

Bob Carey is the former director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, a captain in the Navy Reserve, and executive director of the National Defense Committee, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va., that works to protect the individual rights of servicemembers. Sam Wright is a retired captain in the Navy Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps and director of the Service Members Law Center at the Reserve Officers Association. Josh Flynn-Brown is an attorney who has worked with ensuring MOVE Act compliance and is a legal fellow at the National Defense Committee. None of the opinions expressed here are necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense, and are the personal opinions of the authors.

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