States praised, others faulted, for policies toward military voters

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 16, 2012 

— With both a tradition of helping service members get their votes counted as well as a tight turnaround between its primary and general elections this year, Washington officials decided to move up the state’s primary date a few weeks, from late August to early August.

The Military Voters Protection Project, a nonpartisan advocacy group, cited that schedule adjustment as an impressive effort to help ensure that the ballots of those serving in war zones are counted, and on Tuesday named Washington among 15 states that make extraordinary efforts to enfranchise military voters. The group noted state efforts to register service members to vote, to meet obligations to get absentee ballots out at least 45 days before elections, and legislative efforts to make good practices into law.

The project says that less than 20 percent of 2.5 million military voters were able to request and return their absentee ballots in 2008 elections, and that in 2010 only 5 percent of military voters were able to successfully vote by absentee ballot.

Those states making the list of 15 “all-stars” include Alaska, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Washington. Eric Eversole, executive director of the military voter project, identified the states doing the worst job at helping military voters as Alabama, California, Illinois, New York and Wisconsin.

“Extraordinary efforts to help military service members in war zones votes should be universal. The reasons they aren’t are often just bureaucratic, or an inefficient system,” Eversole said. “But these are Americans willing to sacrifice everything for their country. We at least owe it to them to make sure their votes count.”

He added that “extraordinary” efforts can mean simply complying with federal law.

Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for the Washington secretary of state’s office, said moving the state’s primary was necessary to be in compliance with a new federal law, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. That law requires absentee ballots be mailed to voters no less than 45 days before an election.

Perhaps what makes Washington exceptional is that the state also allows 20 days of leeway on military absentee votes before results are certified, meaning military voters actually have 65 days, not 45, to return their ballots. By extending the time between the August primary and the Nov. 6 general election to 90 days, officials can meet deadlines even with challenges and unforeseen problems, Zylstra said.

“Making it easier for military voters has always been a state priority. We take pride in that,” Zylstra said.

As one of five states that the group said could do more, California law actually is more friendly to military voters than national law, requiring ballots go out 60 days before an election. So why, in the last state election, did 11 of 58 counties in the state fail to get their ballots out on time for their June 5 presidential primary?

Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for the California secretary of state’s office, blamed a bureaucratic error and said elections officials in the 11 counties simply failed to get ballots out on time. Velayas said the state made efforts to make votes count.

Eversole said that the voting rights of service members are frequently hampered by similar issues. The point of the program, he said, is to make sure systems protect against such problems being repeated.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com

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