Imagine if five states announced that they lacked the money and manpower to ship ballots before the fall federal election to precincts in predominantly black rural counties. The Justice Department appropriately would shift into fifth gear to assure that those Americans could vote on Nov. 2. Enforcement lawsuits would fly like pigeons fleeing a breezy schoolyard.
Now, convert those rural blacks into American GIs serving abroad. Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Washington are dragging their feet on the urgent task of delivering absentee midterm election ballots to overseas service members. The response at Justice’s Voting Section in Washington echoes a Louis Armstrong tune: “It’s sleepy time down South.”
Saturday marked 45 days until the election. According to the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), that is the deadline by which states must send unmarked ballots overseas. That period should enable ballots to reach GIs, from bases in Germany to trenches in Afghanistan, and return by Election Night.
However, these five states have received waivers from the MOVE Act, essentially giving them extensions on their homework. Primary elections on Tuesday gave Delaware, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Wisconsin just four days to determine party nominees, print ballots and send them off. State election officials should have scheduled primaries early enough to avoid this headache. Six other states and the District of Columbia also said they were unable to meet Saturday’s deadline.
Even worse, some of the waivers went to states that never demonstrated that they were “unable” to obey the law. This is the only standard for approving waivers.
As former Justice Department voting rights attorney J. Christian Adams reports, Washington got a waiver despite its Aug. 17 primary, which gave it plenty of time to transmit military ballots. Delaware applied for a waiver “just in case” problems arose. Rhode Island asked for and received a waiver because there might be a hypothetical recount.
The Defense Department, which grants waivers, asked Justice to help prepare guidelines so states would understand this new law’s waiver rules and other details. On May 24, the Pentagon asked Justice to review this “interim” guidance.
As Mr. Adams explained in an Aug. 27 column for Pajamas Media: “Officials in the Voting Section allowed the Pentagon draft to gather dust. In fact, the Department of Justice never replied.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin officials told Justice they planned to mail ballots 29 days before the election. Instead, Justice negotiated a hard bargain: The ballots will go out 32 days before Election Day.
Justice routinely sues states to conform to federal voting rights laws. Such suits sit unfiled, and fires remain unlit beneath the tails of these lawbreaking states.
Why is the normally hyperactive Obama administration somewhere between drowsy and counterproductive on this matter? Could this concern the fact that military voters lean more Republican than Democratic? An April 8-11 Gallup poll found that Americans typically are 26 percent Republican, 29 percent Democratic and 42 percent independent. Meanwhile, a survey of 1,800 active-duty troops in the April 11 Military Times discovered that those GIs were 41 percent Republican, 27 percent Democratic and 32 percent independent. Because military voters likelier support Republican candidates and causes, perhaps President Obama’s Justice Department just isn’t that into defending the voting rights of overseas combatants.
Missed deadlines and other administrative snafus reportedly disenfranchised about 17,000 military voters in 2008. Their ballots otherwise might have tipped close elections, such as Minnesota’s skintight contest that eventually made Democratic comedian Al Franken a U.S. senator.
America’s uniformed men and women dodge - and sometimes absorb - bullets so the rest of us can debate peacefully about taxes and mosques. They should expect to choose the leaders who might deploy them into combat - or suddenly call them home.
Mr. Obama’s Justice Department should wake up, sue negligent states and assure that every military vote counts on Election Night.
Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
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