Wisconsin denied waiver for new military ballot law, status of other states uncertain

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wisconsin denied military ballot law waiver

MADISON, Wis. — Massachusetts, Delaware and Rhode Island were granted waivers Friday to ignore a new federal law meant to protect the voting rights of deployed troops and other Americans overseas, while Wisconsin was denied in its request.

Not getting the waiver calls into question how Wisconsin will comply with deadlines for counting all votes cast for the Nov. 2 election by members of the military and others living overseas. State election officials said they have already begun talks with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is charged with enforcing the defense department’s decision, about what to do next.

Nine states, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, sought exemptions to the federal law. Information about the other requests was not immediately released by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Wisconsin election director Kevin Kennedy said before the decision was handed down that a denial would not change how the state holds its Sept. 14 primary, but would require the DOJ to outline what steps the state needs to take to satisfy concerns.

Not getting the waiver means the state won’t be able to meet the deadline under the law to send military and overseas voters a ballot 45 days before the Nov. 2 election. The deadline for getting the ballots to those voters is Sept. 18, but it will take the state at least two weeks to finalize the primary vote and set the general election ballot.

Not being able to meet the 45-day requirement under the law isn’t that big of an issue because all states can e-mail ballots to voters, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists overseas and military voters.

The 45-day requirement was the worst-case scenario for how long it would take a ballot to be sent and returned by mail, she said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Defense, which is notifying states that requested a waiver, said a statement on the status of the other states would be released later Friday.

Others that requested a waiver were Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

Elections officials in Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts said they were granted the waiver.

Minnesota and Vermont responded to the law by moving their Sept. 14 primaries back to August. Maryland initially asked for a waiver for its Sept. 14 primary, but then determined it could get the ballots to military and overseas voters before the election.

Of those that requested a waiver, three have already had their primaries — Colorado on Aug. 10, Washington on Aug. 17 and Alaska on Aug. 24. Six of them are on Sept. 14 — Delaware, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. The Virgin Islands’ primary is Sept. 11 and Hawaii’s is Sept. 18.

Advocates who pushed for the Military and Overseas Voter Act said more time is needed to send ballots overseas and get them returned and counted on time. The potential delays and problems are most extreme for members of the military as the mail gets sent from port to port, base to base.

Last year the Pew Center on the States identified problems with the turnaround of military and overseas ballots in 25 states. The report found that it took states anywhere from 21 to 60 days before an election to mail ballots to overseas voters and sometimes they didn’t come back until it was too late to be counted.

Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said shortly after the law passed in October that it would affect 1.4 million military members and their 400,000 voting-age dependents. Many more American civilians living overseas are also affected.

In Wisconsin, which has a 10-day post-election grace period and extends other options to military voters, there has been little appetite for holding the primary earlier than the traditional September time.

Wisconsin’s final general election ballot is available to overseas voters between 29 and 39 days before the election, which is not enough time to ensure all ballots will be returned in time to be counted, the Department of Defense said in its denial letter to the state.

The Wisconsin board that regulates elections issued a statement saying it was committed to ensuring all military and overseas voters fully participate in elections and will begin working immediately with the DOJ to work out what steps to take next.

In the 2008 general election, of the roughly 10,000 ballots sent to members of the military and dependents claiming Wisconsin as their home state, 28 percent were not returned. Of that ones that were, only 4 percent were not counted because of errors.

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