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The Disfranchised Military

Members of the U.S. military and their families who were stationed overseas during the 2010 elections were disfranchised at an alarmingly high rate, according to a new report released today by the Military Voter Protection Project.

MVPP surveyed 24 states. Of the 2 million military voters covered by the report, 15.8 percent requested absentee ballots, but only 4.6 percent cast absentee ballots that were counted. This is at least partly due to the difficulty and uncertainty of the process. Both numbers were below the 2006 midterm election figures, when 5.5 percent of military and overseas voters cast absentee ballots that were counted.

MVPP also found that local election officials in 14 states and the District of Columbia failed to comply with the federal requirement that all absentee ballots must be mailed at least 45 days prior to the election. That requirement, imposed by the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), was intended to ensure that voters had enough time to receive and mail back a ballot, given the long transit times for overseas mail, particularly in war zones. These failures affected more than 65,000 voters.

Most of the states did a good job counting the ballots they actually got back — the overall acceptance rate was more than 94 percent. However, there was one glaring and shameful exception: The state of New York rejected nearly one-third of all absentee ballots from military voters. Based on a combined estimate of military members who voted in person in the U.S. as well as overseas voters, MVPP concluded that the overall turnout rate of military voters was 11.6 percent. Since the turnout rate of all voters was 41.6 percent in the 2010 election, this means that military voters were 3.5 times less likely to vote than other voting-age citizens.

One troubling aspect of the MOVE Act was a provision that allowed states to apply for a one-time waiver from the 45-day deadline. Ten states and the District of Columbia applied for a waiver, most of them submitting their applications less than 50 days before the deadline. The Department of Justice never replied to the Defense Department’s request for advice on the waivers, and DOD granted five waivers only three weeks before the deadline. So until very shortly before the election, military voters had no idea when they would receive their ballots.

The report also details other errors and egregious mistakes made by the Justice Department, which is charged with enforcing compliance with these federal requirements. This included telling states like Maryland that they could avoid the need for a waiver by sending a ballot that contained only federal races at least 45 days before the election, even though that meant depriving the military voters of their right to vote in state races. Fortunately, a federal court disagreed with that DOJ advice in a lawsuit filed against Maryland by the MVPP.

New York also got a waiver — and then violated the terms of the waiver, sending out its ballots even later than the date agreed to by DOD and DOJ in a settlement agreement. St. Clair County in Illinois, home to Scott Air Force Base, mailed more than a 1,000 absentee ballots only 16 days before they were due back, insufficient time for the ballots to even arrive at their locations overseas. If directed toward non-military populations, this kind of behavior by election officials would raise howls of outrage and cries of “Jim Crow” from leading civil rights organizations.

Anyone interested in this subject will be able to hear a lot more on July 19 at a special Heritage conference on military voting rights. Speakers will include Eric Eversole, the head of MVPP, as well as Sen. John Cornyn, Adm. Edmund Giambastiani Jr., the secretaries of state of Alabama and West Virginia, and former Justice Department lawyers Christian Adams and Christopher Coates.

— Hans von Spakovsky is a senior fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.


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