Counting overseas military ballots

October 1, 2010

Over the last decade it became clear in many states that U.S. citizens abroad had become an often disenfranchised group of voters. Civilians abroad have always expected mail delays to the United States, but that reality has been aggravated for our service people, especially those stationed as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The maze-like U.S. military mail system far surpasses civilian international mail in its tardiness in delivering and returning ballots home in time to be counted. Too often, military ballots in particular went unopened, having arrived past the due date.

To remedy this appalling problem, the president signed the U.S. Military & Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in 2009, requiring each state to write plans to ensure counting of overseas ballots from military and civilian voters.

A key provision in MOVE requires a 45-day pre-election ballot turnaround time. Unfortunately, this creates a hardship for states like Wisconsin with late primaries in September. The late date, and slow military mails, conspire to make it almost impossible for elections officials to send and receive overseas ballots back in time.

As allowed under MOVE, the state applied for a waiver of the 45-day rule in order to rectify this problem for the coming November 2010 election. Even though the federal government denied Wisconsin’s original waiver request, our state Government Accountability Board (GAB) refused to accept the decision, and finally negotiated a waiver with the U.S. Department of Justice. The agreement was reached last month giving Wisconsin five extra days this fall (so 50, instead of 45) to send, receive, and count overseas ballots.

County and municipal clerks will be required to prepare and send the absentee ballots a few days earlier than usual. They must also count ballots cast and postmarked by Election Day, if received by Nov. 19.

In the future, the permanent time restrictions in the MOVE Act will prompt Wisconsin to reexamine its absentee ballot and elections rules in order to consistently be in compliance. And the time may well have come for true reconsideration of the timing of Wisconsin’s presidential preference primary and the fall primary election before the year 2012.

Chris Sinicki is the state representative for Wisconsin’s 20th state Assembly District, which includes southern Bay View, St. Francis, Cudahy, the airport, and other parts of the south side. Her website is chrissinicki.net and she can be reached at (888) 534-0020 or rep.sinicki@legis.wi.gov.

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