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Lawmakers: Must troops sue for voting rights?

Feb. 16, 2011 - 10:25AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 16, 2011 - 10:25AM  |  
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Giving service members and overseas civilians the right to sue their election officials for violating their voting rights may be one way to ensure those rights are protected, some lawmakers said in a hearing called to explore absentee voting problems.

The full extent of those problems is not known, but efforts by the Justice Department to pursue voting rights violations before the 2010 elections resulted in tens of thousands of military and overseas citizens havint their votes counted, said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, testifying Feb. 15 before the Committee on House Administration.

Committee chairman Rep. Daniel Lungren, R-Calif., asked how many military and overseas voters were not able to vote. Perez said he is awaiting complete data from the Election Assistance Commission, which is collecting data from local election officials about how many military and overseas voter absentee ballots were requested, sent, and returned, among other issues.

Lungren cited a recent survey by the Overseas Vote Foundation that found 30 percent of respondents attempted to vote but could not, for various reasons.

That OVF survey was completed by 5,257 voters, the vast majority of them civilians living overseas. Three percent of respondents to the OVF survey were active-duty military members, a military spouse, or dependent.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program has conducted its own survey of service members and spouses; results are pending.

"While there has been some progress since 2008, I know we can do better," Lungren said, adding that he plans to hold hearings to explore problems in New York and Illinois, and the committee will evaluate measures to hold election officials accountable.

Perez said the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against New York after learning that the state would not comply with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act requirement that absentee ballots be sent at least 45 days before the election. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree that extended the time for ballots to be received.

Justice officials filed a lawsuit against Illinois on Oct. 22 after learning that election officials in numerous jurisdictions had failed to send ballots in time. A consent decree in that state gave voters additional time for receipt of overseas and military ballots.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., however, said the state's board of elections director stated that the late ballots couldn't be counted even if the state was delinquent in complying with the 2009 MOVE Act. "I believe that is outrageous and cannot stand," Schock said.

"Those responsible must be held accountable and this must never be allowed to happen again," he said. "I have profound wonder at why the law regarding the date those ballots must be received to be counted was strictly upheld, but not the unequivocal law about when these ballots were required to be mailed in the first place."

He also noted that ballots were hand-delivered to inmates at the Cook County jail, "yet overseas and military ballots were mailed weeks late." The state's primary was held in February 2010, the first in the country, and election officials had nine months to prepare, he noted.

Perez said the Justice Department was told by Illinois officials that the ballots would be counted as long as they were received by the agreed-upon date. "I want to double back and make sure those ballots were counted," he said.

Lawmakers discussed the possibility of changing the law to allow service members to sue election officials for violating their rights, and the possibility of requiring Justice officials to work more closely with the 9,000 local election officials across the country. While Justice officials sent information to state officials about the requirements of the law, and talked to some local election officials when issues arose, Perez said, there was not communication with all 9,000.

The 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens and Absentee Voting Act, and the 2009 MOVE Act "were both aimed at ensuring our brave service men and service women are not disenfranchised," Lungren said. "Given their sacrifice on our behalf, they deserve every effort be made on their behalf to guarantee their right to participate in our elections."

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