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States Struggle to Meet Absentee Ballot Deadlines

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WASHINGTON -- Nearly three years after Congress passed a law to guarantee military and overseas voters receive their absentee ballots at least 45 days before a federal election, several states are still failing to comply with the law.

The Department of Justice announced last week that it had filed a lawsuit against Vermont and its chief election official for not complying with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, also known as the MOVE Act, which was passed in 2009 to safeguard the voting rights of the military, their family members and U.S. citizens overseas by allowing them adequate time to request, receive and send in their ballots from overseas.

Vermont missed the Sept. 22 deadline, failing to send more than 20 percent of the absentee ballots requested by the state's military and overseas voters for the Nov. 6 election, according to a statement by Justice Department. DOJ is seeking an order that the state extend its deadline for returned ballots to Nov. 16 for affected voters and take all necessary steps to prevent future violations.

But Vermont is far from the only state to have failed to meet required deadlines. The House Armed Forces Committee last week sent a letter of inquiry to the Defense and Justice departments, expressing concern that Wisconsin, Mississippi and Michigan had also not met the deadline.

Lawmakers asked whether the Justice Department was planning to take legal action against these states, and were awaiting written responses from both departments detailing steps they'd taken to prevent the disenfranchisement of military and overseas voters.

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said DOJ is conducting a nationwide review and investigation to ensure that states are complying with the MOVE Act, but it could not comment on future legal actions.

Committee on House Administration chairman Rep. Dan Lungren, R- Calif., who drafted the letter on behalf of the House Armed Services Committee, said this week that the letter was intended to make sure both departments "were doing what they were supposed to" and the law "was working as it was intended to."

Lungren said that the MOVE Act was passed after a 2009 Pew Foundation study found that 25 states and the District of Columbia did not allow enough time for military voters overseas to cast absentee ballots. Yet, problems persist, he said.

For example, the MOVE Act also requires military services to establish Installation Voter Assistance Offices at every non-war-zone installation. On Aug. 31 that the Department of Defense Inspector General reported it was unable to contact these offices at almost half of all military installations.

The Defense Department's Federal Voter Assistance Program, which is charged with providing absentee-related voting information to administer the MOVE Act, earlier had incorrect information on its website about Wisconsin's deadline for returned ballots. The committee worked with FVAP and Wisconsin election officials to ensure it was corrected and that all listed state deadlines are correct, Lungren said.

"Putting a spotlight on this issue" is important, he said. "It's important that everyone knows what's expected of them."

FVAP's Acting Director Pam Mitchell disputed the IG report's findings, noting that there are more than 200 voter assistance offices around the globe and that they are just one resource for military members. They can also contact unit voting assistance officers, who are available at every unit worldwide, as well as state election boards and the FVAP's website, she said.

Navy Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the Defense Department "remains vigilant" and "works closely with the states and the services to facilitate the process for service members."

"As soon as we became aware of the [incorrect] deadlines, we updated the information and reached out to Wisconsin residents to inform them of the correct dates," she said.

The Defense Department also sends emails to state election officials reminding them of mandated deadlines. It ensured that the Justice Department, which is the only agency that can initiative the law's enforcement, were aware of the most recent ballot delays, she added.

Lungren said his committee recently sent letters to state election officials to ask if they needed assistance or were having problems complying with the law. The committee was awaiting their responses.

"Americans owe all of our rights, including the right to vote, to the brave men and women who defend our liberty across the globe," he wrote in his committee letter to DOD and DOJ. "Consequently, we owe it to them to protect fully their right to vote."

Yet, the problem of late absentee ballots is more widespread than even the committee's letter indicates. Wisconsin and Michigan, which were noted in the letter for missing deadlines, were sued for missing primary election deadlines earlier in this year, according to the Department of Justice. Four other states -- Georgia, California, Alabama and Illinois -- also were sued by the Department of Justice over the past year for missed primary deadlines for absentee ballots.

Some states have sought waivers from the law, as they work to improve their systems to meet the law's demands. New York was the only state to ask for a waiver from the deadlines this year, according to the FVAP website, but DOD rejected its request, saying it wasn't able to prove that complying with the law was an undue hardship. In 2010, 10 states asked for waivers, and DOD approved half of them for deadline extensions: Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Washington.

Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voters Protection Project, said that the problem for many state election officials is that they have to ensure that hundreds, even thousands of local election officials in towns and cities comply with the MOVE Act's deadlines. That can be like "herding cats," he said.

Despite some ongoing problems, "there's been tremendous improvement on the state and local level since the MOVE Act has been passed to get absentee ballots out in time," he said, though allowing that more work needs to be done.

Military members who haven't received absentee ballots, Eversole said, should notify election officials and ask for a ballot by email -- or even request help from his organization in obtaining the ballots at mvpproject.org.

Another "often underutilized" option for many servicemembers is to fill out a federal write-in absentee ballot, which can be found online at fvap.gov, and send it in to their local election officials, he said. A number of states, including Virginia and North Carolina, will accept it as a method of registering and voting the same day.

"Don't wait," Eversole said. "That's the worst thing someone can do at this point."

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