About four brigades’ worth of American military personnel lost the right to have their votes count in the 2008 elections.
It now appears that the Justice Department is willing to allow many of the same 17,000 Americans fighting for us overseas to be disenfranchised once again in November. Congress and the Defense Department need to step in to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Military Voter Protection Project Director M. Eric Eversole accused his former employer, the Justice Department’s Voting Section, of encouraging states to use waivers to get around a law Congress passed last year to address the problems with overseas voting. The statute requires that states mail absentee ballots to military personnel at least 45 days before an election, ensuring there is sufficient time for them to reach far-flung locales and be returned by Election Day. Waiving the law effectively denies a state’s soldiers, sailors and airmen the ability to exercise the most basic right of citizenship.
Sen. John Cornyn brought up Mr. Eversole’s charges in a meeting Wednesday with Defense Department officials responsible for ensuring military voting rights. The Texas Republican was one of the two lead sponsors of the legislation in question.
“I was very encouraged by what the Defense Department is doing in terms of marketing the new system to military and civilian personnel overseas,” Mr. Cornyn told The Washington Times, singling out Clifford L. Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, for praise. “But the bureaucracies at both the federal and state levels are agonizingly slow. And I am concerned with the process by which waivers are being granted. I want to make sure [states] aren’t being granted permission not to comply with federal law.”
The authors of that law intended that the waivers be used in limited circumstances and only when other measures are taken to ensure the ballots are counted on time. “I want to make sure there is not a presumption that [states] don’t have to comply,” Mr. Cornyn explained. Because Defense officials show deference to the legal advice provided by the Justice Department, the waiver recommendations are troubling and deserve a full and complete investigation. Mr. Cornyn urged at a minimum that Justice officials require that states provide full transparency for all waiver applications, placing the relevant documentation online for public review.
Experts agree that the 45-day requirement provides a reasonable amount of time both for states to print ballots and for military personnel to return them in time for counting. Deviations from this new system should be extremely rare and subjected to close scrutiny. Unless that happens, the reasons for suspicion regarding the Justice Department’s actions will be legion.