Monday, November 17, 2008

The Case Continues

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.


Dave Rickey said...

Just two little flies in the ointment I'd like to point out:

1) Where it's possible to separate the military vote from the civilian (precincts that only military bases vote at, for example), the R/D split has been much closer to parity than a 70-30 GOP advantage. The Navy and Air Force actually seem to have favored the Democrats this cycle, and the Army has been somewhere between 50-50 and 60-40 (I can't find one that's exclusive to the Marines without Navy or civilians). Ted Stevens would have been re-elected if the Air Force precincts in Alaska hadn't gone significantly Democratic and pushed Begich over the line.

2) You do realize that the reason so many Republican-controlled counties send out their absentee ballots late is because, other than the military voters, absentee ballots tend to significantly favor the Democrats?

Why not just call for enforcement of the law concerning the deadline for sending out absentee ballots? Or a "Print Your Own" standard of making them available as PDF's on the web so people can start them returning to the elections boards as soon as the ballot is finalized, instead of a two-way mailing delay?

J.R. said...

I'm confused about your last sentence. Why should the ballots' outcome have any impact on whether or not the President and his Justice Department choose to make every vote count?

Isn't counting every vote a fundamental principle of a representative and democratic republic?

Unknown said...

Dave--How about a source for your data? The split referenced in the post is based on the Military Times poll. As I've noted in previous postings, the Times survey is not without its problems, but it is the closest thing we have to a military poll, and it has reflected a 70-30 margin over the last two election cycles.

Additionally, I don't see how you can separate military from civilian votes. In 20+ years in the military, I never saw a polling place on a military base, for a variety of reasons. Military members either cast an absentee ballot, or voted at a civilian polling place in their neighborhoods. The best I can find(in terms of data) are precincts where military representation is heavier than the norm.

For example, take a look at the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts in VA, or Okaloosa County in Florida. Okaloosa has the highest percentage of military voters (active duty and retired) in the nation, and locations in VA's 1st District and 2nd District include a number of military installations. For example, if you look at the totals for cities of Poquoson and Gloucester, adjacent to Langley AFB and Ft Eustis, you'll see that McCain carried those areas by about a 2-1 margin. However, Obama did well in the nearby metro areas of Newport News, Hampton and Norfolk, one reason that McCain couldn't accumulate enough votes to offset Obama's advantage in those areas.

Also, taking a look at the Okaloosa County (FL) vote, it went for McCain by an almost 3-1 margin, although Obama carried the state. Again, I'd like to see the source for your information.

MarkD said...

This is hardly new. My absentee ballot arrived in Japan after Jimmy Carter had been elected.

Dave Rickey said...

You have to dig into the precinct-by-precinct totals publicized by the states, often the Secretary of State's office. This one is Alaska's, for example. Then you have to look for precincts that include military bases and little else.

Just looking at the county or US congressional district level does little good, because most of the vote will be civilians, and most military bases are located in rural areas (which skew Republican), so the few hundreds or thousands of voters from the bases themselves are lost in the noise. Most active duty military don't vote at all, and most of those that do, do so by absentee ballot, so it's hard to draw conclusions in most cases.

One particularly interesting result from the Alaska Senate race was a block of 10,000 absentee ballots specifically from active duty military (because of the lack of a state income tax and the yearly oil dividend, many Air Force personnel stationed in Alaska establish residency there). That block was not reported separately, but it was counted separately with the totals given before and after, and Begich (the Democrat) gained 6500 votes to Stevens 3500. And those votes had to have been mostly sent before Stevens was convicted.

Exit polls indicate that veterans were more closely split than usual (54-44 for McCain, compared to 59-39 Bush-Kerry), not much different from their age cohort (Korea and Vietnam veterans still make up the bulk of that demographic). On the other hand, the 18-29 demographic voted for Obama 64-34, and the bulk of enlisted personnel fall squarely into that window (and it coincidentally matches that Senate absentee result). They're also over-represented with those from low-income backgrounds, minorities, and just about every criterion for a strong Obama result, which would tend to counteract the conservative skew of the military culture.

Add in that Obama had several times as many active duty military donate to his campaign, above even his donor count multiple in general. Although for high-dollar donations, presumably from officers, McCain achieved parity late in the campaign, and McCain had a significant edge in donations from civilian employees of the Department of Defense and major defense contractors. But those don't represent the "Military Vote", in my book.

Dave Rickey said...

Oh, Alaska does things the way that you would prefer. The second to last block of votes counted in Alaska was 7700 military absentee ballots received since Election Day (the very last is a block of 2500 military dependents from overseas). Begich went +1400 votes out of the block, roughly +18% (so something like 58-40 for the Democrat). This put him out of the automatic recount zone at nearly 4000 votes more than Stevens, and he's expected to win.

Now, you could argue that Begich outperformed Obama all across the state by about 15%, and that Obama probably did no better with military voters than he did with Veterans. Or that Air Force personnel are for some reason more liberal than the other services (I wouldn't know why, it's got less of all but the age-based demographics that were strong for Obama, fewer minorities, more middle-class backgrounds, fewer high-school dropouts). But I don't see how you make a case for a 70-30 GOP advantage in this election.

Paul Wilson said...

Ted Stevens would have been re-elected if the Air Force precincts in Alaska hadn't gone significantly Democratic and pushed Begich over the line.
Ted Stevens would have been re-elected if he weren't such an unmitigated, ward-heeling sleazeball.

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here: