The Justice Department’s program for handling military absentee ballots suffers from major flaws, and a survey revealed low turnout among military voters in the 2010 mid-term elections, according to a report by a private group made public on Tuesday.
Less than 5 percent of 2 million military personnel in states that are home to 80 percent of U.S. troops voted last year, the report by the Military Voter Protection Project (MVP) said. The low numbers were in part the result of complicated and mishandled federal enforcement, said Eric Eversole, MVP founder and author of the report.
“We’re 10 years into conflict now, and we still can’t seem to get the absentee voting things right,” Mr. Eversole said. “This needs to be a priority now. We can’t let our servicemen suffer another election.”
Mr. Eversole, a veteran and former Justice Department official, studied 24 states’ voting records and found widespread gaps in the application of a 2009 federal law, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act.
“The states didn’t have clear guidelines from the Department of Justice from the very beginning, even though the Department of Justice promised to provide those guidelines” in February 2010, Mr. Eversole said.
The MOVE Act requires states to send absentee ballots to troops and their families at least 45 days before ballots are due. In the 2010 elections, offices in 14 states failed to meet this deadline, including New York, Maryland and Illinois. Most of the infractions were spotted at the local level, including 35 counties in Illinois.
Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation fellow and former Justice Department official, said the department filed suit against only some of the states.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said 14 cases were resolved, but they did not include all of the instances highlighted by Mr. Eversole.
In some cases, the department recommended that a state prevent troops from voting. In Maryland, the Justice Department told the state to send ballots for federal elections only because ballots for local elections would have violated the 45-day deadline, the report says.
“They were basically telling Maryland that they could disenfranchise these voters’ rights to vote in local elections,” Mr. von Spakovsky said.
In New York, the Justice Department negotiated with the state to count ballots returned within a certain time period after the election because many were sent late. The state later discounted 30 percent of the military absentee ballots even though they arrived within the negotiated time frame, Mr. Eversole said.
“When one out of every three ballots [was] basically thrown in the trash — that speaks volumes to the need for significant reform,” Mr. Eversole said.
In the other states studied, however, there was a 94.1 percent rate of ballots counted, despite confusion in sending them out. The report says the Justice Department and local authorities need to address these issues before the 2012 election.