On the eve of this year's presidential election, attorneys representing John McCain went before a federal judge in Virginia, asking him to preserve--and count--military absentee ballots that were received after the submission deadline.
It was a timely--and valid--request. As we've noted before, members of the armed forces are the most disenfranchised segment of the electorate. By one estimate, roughly two-thirds of absentee votes submitted by overseas military personnel go uncounted, for a very simple reason--they don't receive their ballots in time to meet state submission requirements.
In Virginia, for example, the law requires that absentee ballots be returned by 7 p.m. on election night to be counted. But local election officials in the state--like most around the country--mailed out the ballots well after the 45-day deadline established by a 1986 federal law. Under that standard, absentee ballots in Virginia should have gone to the post office in late September; but in most counties around the state, they weren't mailed out until mid-October--or later.
Anticipating a close race in Virginia, the McCain campaign asked Federal Judge Richard L. Williams to preserve late-arriving ballots, and count them. Williams agreed to preserve the ballots, pending a 17 November court hearing.
When the two sides returned to the courtroom today, the judge removed the McCain campaign as a plantiff in the lawsuit. However, he rejected state claims' that the suit is moot, because it would not affect election results. Instead, Judge Williams agreed to let the Justice Department replace the campaign as the plantiff in the case. A hearing on the merits of the case is scheduled for next month.
It's unclear if Williams will actually order the votes to be counted, but today's ruling is a partial victory for military absentee voters, and those fighting to preserve their election rights. Justice Department attorney Alberto Ruisanchez said it's important to ensure that votes are properly counted, both in this year's election and future contests.
We heartily concur. But we still wonder why it took the McCain campaign--and the Bush Administration--so long to intervene. The disenfranchisement of military personnel is hardly new, but (to our knowledge) the McCain lawsuit was the only legal action attempted during this election cycle. Likewise, the White House has never thrown its support behind GOP-sponsored legislation aimed at making it easier for military members to vote.
Unfortunately, that decision represents another missed opportunity for the Bush team. With almost 70% of military members voting Republican, the administration--and its Justice Department--should have done far more to ensure the voting rights of those who wear the uniform.