Friday, October 23, 2009

The Virginia State Board of Elections is investigating why more than 10 percent of the state’s local elections boards have apparently failed to comply with a new state law requiring absentee ballots be ready 45 days before an election.

Sixteen of Virginia’s 134 localities, which were not identified by the State Board of Elections, failed to confirm with state officials that they had made at least one of three types of ballots — paper, e-mail, or touch-screen in-person — available on Sept. 18, the first day of absentee voting.

“It is disappointing,” State Board of Elections Secretary Nancy Rodrigues said Thursday. “That’s the reality of it. And obviously we take what we do seriously. But the physical sending out of the ballots are done at a local level.”

She said the board is investigating the specifics of each case of noncompliance.

The failure comes months after the General Assembly enacted absentee voter requirements in the wake of a lawsuit filed last year by the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Thousands of absentee ballots were left uncounted in last year’s vote when they weren’t returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the state violated the voting rights of military and overseas voters in last year’s presidential election by sending ballots without sufficient time for them to be returned on Election Day.

On Thursday, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act that would provide military and overseas voters ballots at least 45 days before an election.

The bill contains provisions similar to those passed this year in Virginia.

Mindful of the new law, the state board notified all 134 localities before sending out a press release on Sept. 17 announcing that absentee ballots would be available the next day.

At that time, two local boards contacted the state elections board to inform officials that they didn’t have paper ballots. The board helped get paper ballots sent overnight to the locations, Ms. Rodrigues said.

However, in early October the state board learned that a Virginia voter had not been able to cast a machine vote on Sept. 18, Ms. Rodrigues said.

She said that as soon as officials learned of the problem they “reached out to localities to certify that indeed absentee balloting had occurred.”

Elections officials on Oct. 9 sent an e-mail to local elections boards inquiring about their readiness.

“It has recently come to our attention that some localities did not [begin] absentee mailings 45 days (9/18/09) before the election as referenced in” state law, the e-mail says. The e-mail asks local elections boards to certify that absentee ballots were prepared and that early voting had begun.

Sixteen localities indicated that they had not complied, she said, adding that two of the reasons given were sickness and a computer that wasn’t working.

In one case, the ballots went out a day late, she said.

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