- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

A provision protecting military-absentee voters is being watered down in the House, angering its Senate sponsor who says voting rights should be protected for Americans fighting overseas.
The Senate measure closes loopholes used by Democrats last year to throw out military-absentee ballots in Florida's hotly contested presidential election. Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, the bill is stalled in a conference committee, and House Republicans are pushing for a weaker alternative, he said.
"If that happens, I'm going to be very disappointed in the House action and furious that we weren't able to maintain the Senate position," Mr. Allard said.
The Senate measure prohibits states from disqualifying a military ballot for lack of postmark or witness signature. It also guarantees residency for military personnel while they travel on official duty.
The House measure does not lift the postmark requirement, which some say could lead to voter fraud. It is sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and ranking member.
"We don't think it's appropriate to pass federal laws to pre-empt state laws put in place to prevent fraud," said Paul Vinovich, committee counsel.
Mr. Allard said the federal government's role is to protect the right to vote for men and women in the military.
"I think it's more than a state issue," Mr. Allard said. "We are trying to close the loophole so they will have the right to vote.
"Right now we are asking our men and women overseas to put their lives on the line for America and for freedom, yet we are not willing to stand strong and protect their voting rights. I am very disappointed," Mr. Allard said.
House Republicans say the Pentagon should be held responsible for ensuring military ballots are postmarked properly.
"We feel that is the better way to go rather than override state law with federal law," Mr. Vinovich said.
During the 36-day Florida recount, Democrats challenged hundreds of absentee ballots for lacking postmarks, citing a state law. The Pentagon said some envelopes were not stamped, and President Bush's 537-vote victory highlighted problems in the military-absentee voting system.
Precise information on the extent that military and overseas ballots are disqualified and reasons for disqualification are not available, according to a September report by the General Accounting Office.
However, the GAO estimates more than 8 percent of military and overseas ballots were disqualified in the 2000 election. The disqualification rate for absentee ballots is less than 2 percent.
Senate aides say Mr. Allard had to use procedural ploys to get his measure passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate's Defense Department authorization bill.
The Senate typically waters down House bills, not the other way around.
"Mr. Allard's provision should be given every consideration because he is trying to protect the integrity and rights that our fighting men and women should have, especially while we are at war," said a Senate leadership aide.
Some of Mr. Allard's language has been included in the House bill to simplify registration and ballot requests, Mr. Vinovich said.
The House measure authorizes $2.65 billion over three years to assist state and local jurisdictions in updating their election systems. It also sets minimum election-administration standards for state and local government.
It requires states to conduct routine file maintenance of voter rolls and ensure that persons with disabilities can cast ballots. The bill also establishes a part-time commission to offer election assistance and authorizes ample funding for the functions of the legislation. It includes assistance for handicapped voters but does not address military-ballot problems.

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