A key Senate Republican on Tuesday pressed the Justice Department to step up its enforcement of a 2009 law that requires states to provide absentee ballots to military service members and their families 45 days before elections.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Sen. John Cornyn said the department has provided “grossly inadequate enforcement” of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowering (MOVE) Act, citing what he called “the national disgrace” of disenfranchised military voters.
“In light of the Justice Department’s poor track record, I call on you to formulate and provide a comprehensive plan” for enforcing laws protecting the military’s right to vote “during the upcoming election cycle,” the Texas Republican said in the letter.
Mr. Cornyn co-sponsored the MOVE Act.
In the 2010 election, at least 14 jurisdictions failed to send out absentee ballots before the law’s 45-day time limit, and only five states were granted waivers of exemption.
Pentagon statistics show that the rate of voter registration among service members is much higher than that of civilians, but the rate of successful ballot return is much lower.
Mr. Cornyn said the Justice Department’s poor enforcement of MOVE is partially to blame.
“Our military service members put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, yet many of them face substantial roadblocks as they attempt to cast their ballots and participate in our national election,” he said at a Heritage Foundation conference on military voting rights on Tuesday.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said all 50 states were monitored to ensure that local election officials sent out and counted the ballots of military and overseas voters.
But J. Christian Adams, a lawyer who worked for the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department until 2010, said the department’s monitoring was too little, too late.
In some cases the department did not challenge states until the month before elections, effectively disenfranchising military voters, Mr. Adams said.
“The primary mechanism for enforcement … is a Justice Department attorney [who] will call a state election official and say, ‘Have you complied with the law?’ ” Mr. Adams said. “There are so many ways to get better information … than this method of calling the single potentially culpable defendant for a confession.”
Eric Eversole, a former Justice Department lawyer and founder of the Military Voter Protection Project, said the challenges for overseas and military voters already are growing ahead of the 2012 elections.
States will have only a few weeks after the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the late summer of 2012 to send out ballots, and service members will have to apply for absentee ballots as early as August 2012 to ensure their votes are counted.
Mr. Cornyn said the Justice Department should look into how each state plans to meet MOVE’s timeline and whether the states will request a waiver before the 45-day period begins.
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