Friday, August 27, 2010

Disenfranchised, Over There (Waiver and Contractor Edition)

If you've a military member serving abroad--and you plan to vote in the November elections--well, don't get your hopes up.

Military absentee voters in a number of states have suffered a pair of setbacks in the past couple of days. In the most disturbing development, the Defense Department announced earlier today that it is granting waivers to five states (Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and Washington). That means they won't have to comply with provisions of the MOVE (Military and Overseas Voting) Act, which mandates that absentee ballots be sent to military personnel--and other Americans living abroad--at least 45 days before an election.

Election officials from the five states claim it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prepare, certify and ship the ballots early enough to meet the MOVE deadline. DoD turned down similar requests from Wisconsin, Hawaii, Alaska and Colorado, as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. A DOJ spokesman told the AP it is working with those states to "bring them into compliance."

Call us unconvinced. As we noted less than two weeks ago, the Obama Justice Department seems less-than-interested in enforcing the law. According to a pair of department whistle-blowers, DOJ has met with a number of state election officials about the MOVE Act (and its waiver process), describing it as "ambiguous," and suggesting that the feds really don't want to litigate cases involving the law. By their words--and deeds--Justice was inviting the states to apply for waivers.

And with today's decision, literally thousands of military voters stationed abroad have no assurance the will receive their ballots in time for the November election. The timeline of the MOVE Act is critical; based on past elections (when thousands of military members were disenfranchised), Congress and DoD decided that ballots should be mailed out six weeks before the election. That gives armed forces personnel enough time to mark their ballots and return them in time to meet state submission laws.

Most of the states asking for a waiver have primaries next month, making it more difficult to certify those results and mail out absentee ballots in compliance with the MOVE Act. But the deadline is not insurmountable. Two states--Minnesota and Vermont--moved their primaries back to August, giving officials more time to prepare and ship absentee ballots for the November election.

Other states with relatively late primaries, including Louisiana (August 28th), and New Hampshire (14 September) have found a way to comply with the law. Even Maryland --which holds its primary in mid-September--withdrew its earlier request for a waiver, deciding it could still mail out absentee ballots ahead of the 45-day deadline, which falls on the 18th of next month.

It's difficult to say how many military voters might be affected by the waivers. But the state of Washington (one of those which received a waiver) is preparing to send out more than 50,000 absentee ballots, with many of those going to members of the armed forces and military dependents. And what difference could those votes make?

Ask Dino Rossi, the Republican challenging incumbent Patty Murray in the Washington Senate race. In 2004, he lost the governor race to Democrat Christine Gregoire by only 133 votes--after two recounts. Before the election, the Bush threatened to sue the state for failing to send out military absentee ballots. Some GOP officials still maintain there were enough disputed ballots to give Rossi the victory, but a lawsuit contesting the outcome was dismissed by a state judge.

In some cases, the waiver requests seemed specious, at best. Washington held its state primary in mid-August, but claimed it didn't have enough time to mail out absentee ballots a month later. Other states applied for a waiver "just in case" unforeseen contingencies arise. Hawaii actually filed its waiver request back in March, almost six months before the primary.

As we've noted before, it's no accident that most of the waiver requests came from blue states, with tight races for the House, the Senate, and (in some cases) governor as well. And, since military members tend to vote Republican, Democratic officials have an incentive to suppress absentee ballots from members of the armed forces serving abroad. The easiest way to do that is to delay mailing of the ballot, realizing that military personnel in remote areas will not be able to return it in time to comply with state laws--and be counted.

One analyst believes at least 17,000 military votes were rejected for that very reason in 2008, while others think the total was much higher. The MOVE Act was supposed to fix the problem, but with lax enforcement by the feds, thousands of military absentee ballots will go uncounted this time around as well. Even states and territories that didn't receive a waiver have little to fear in terms of a federal lawsuit over non-compliance with the military voting law.

But the bad news doesn't end there. Fox News reported yesterday that military voters will be unable to participate in a pilot, on-line program sponsored by DoD because a contractor is dragging its feet and charging the states outrageous fees to supply the states with their own voting data.

So far, at least one state (Nebraska) has dropped out of the project, and five others will be unable to participate fully in the pilot program. The system is supposed to allow on-screen marking of ballots down to the precinct level. But ESS, the Nebraska-based firm that manages over half of the country's elections, has been slow in providing data needed to develop the on-line ballots, and is charging steep prices for data needed to develop the military voting system.

Sadly, these latest snafus are no surprise to anyone who has followed the armed forces voting issue. The very men and women who defend our freedom around the world are the most disenfranchised segment of the American electorate, and few officials--at the Pentagon or DOJ --are doing much to make their votes count.

Which brings us back to an on-line voting system that appears to work. In 2008, Arizona implemented an Internet-based system for state residents living abroad. More than 7,000 Arizonans cast their vote on-line that year, and there were few complaints about access, verification or security. Arizona will use the same system again this year. As other states thrash about, they would be well advised to send someone to Phoenix and study the Arizona system, which uses the same level of security encryption as on-line banking and credit card purchases.

As in other areas, Arizona is definitely ahead of the curve. And if more localities would follow Jan Brewer's example (she implemented the system as Secretary of State), more of our military members could cast their votes this fall--and have them count, for a change.

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