Secretary of State Sam Reed has asked the Legislature to move the date of the primary election forward two weeks to the first part of August.
It’s a reasonable request because it will ensure that Washington election officials can comply with a federal law that requires military and overseas ballots be mailed 45 days before the general election. About 45,000 voters are impacted.
The existing primary date in mid-August puts the 45-day rule at risk.
In a normal year, county election officials can tabulate the primary ballots, certify the election results and get general election ballots mailed out anywhere from 52 to 60 days before the November election.
“If things go perfectly in every election, we don’t have a problem,” Reed said. “That means no lawsuits. No recounts. No printing problems. If there are problems, then we risk not getting them out in 45 days.”
Reed said federal agents are closely monitoring Washington’s compliance. “Last year, our state was able to receive a waiver from the Department of Defense and Department of Justice that allowed us to mail our military-voter ballots when we would normally, but federal officials made it clear that we shouldn’t count on getting that waiver in the future, so we need to move up the primary to follow the (federal voting law),” Reed said.
Surprisingly, Reed drew criticism — mostly within his own Republican Party — for seeking the waiver. Critics accused Reed of trying to disenfranchise military voters.
Defending himself against the allegations, Reed said, “We bend over backwards to get military people registered and to make sure they get their ballots in a timely fashion, no matter where they may be stationed. The Department of Defense, the National Guard leadership and veterans groups have complimented our efforts, and there is no way we would have gotten a waiver if we hadn’t demonstrated that our program is of the highest caliber. Make no mistake, the counties are making every effort to get the ballots into the mail ASAP.”
Lynn Simpson, working in the office of the Undersecretary of Defense, signed Washington’s waiver, and said this state’s “thorough and comprehensive plan” will protect the voting opportunities for military and overseas voters.
Federal officials expect the state to move the date of the primary to ensure Washington can meet the 45-day mandate for military and overseas ballots to go in the mail.
In the 2008 presidential election this state had a 73 percent return of military and overseas voter ballots. And more than 99 percent of the ballots arrived in the proper office in time to be counted.
Contrary to the claim of critics, that’s not disenfranchising military and overseas voters.
But to ensure compliance with the law, legislators must move the primary forward two weeks, with a corresponding two weeks change in the period to file for public office. If Reed’s proposal is approved the 2011 primary election will move from Aug. 16 to Aug. 2.
That’s not a substantive change to fend off lawsuits from the federal government. That’s why lawmakers should approve Reed’s legislation.
Incorporated in his bill — and as a separate bill (HB 1000) — is a more controversial provision that would allow military and overseas voters to cast ballots by fax or e-mail rather than by slower surface mail.
That measure was unanimously passed by the House last year, before failing to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote. It passed out of the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee last week.
“Military and overseas voters have repeatedly asked for the ability to scan and return their ballots by e-mail,” Reed said. He notes that 20 other states use that approach. It’s working well for them, Reed said.
“When you’re a soldier stationed in the hills of Afghanistan or on a ship in the middle of the ocean, you don’t have much time to mail back your ballot, so this bill provides a modern, practical solution that allows military voters to return their ballots in a timely way.”
What about voter’s right to a secret ballot?
Reed said there is technology available to separate the ballot from the voter’s name, similar to the way the secrecy envelope guarantees voter confidentiality for those who cast their ballot by mail.
Besides, Reed said, people in the military have told him the secrecy of their ballot is less important to them than ensuring that their vote be counted.
Moving the date of the primary election forward two weeks is a reasonable solution to ensure that Washington state complies with the federal government’s 45-day mailing mandate for military and overseas voters.