Some states weigh earlier primaries in 2010 to accommodate Americans abroad
ST. PAUL, MINN. -- A new law meant to protect the voting rights of deployed troops and other Americans overseas is forcing at least a dozen states to consider holding their primaries earlier or to negotiate another plan that federal officials will accept.
Ballots must be sent to certain voters at least 45 days before an election, under a requirement included in a major defense bill signed Wednesday by President Obama. It leaves states with primaries in August and September next year in a pickle, because the deadline for distributing November ballots will have passed by the time many will have certified the results of their primaries.
"You can't print a ballot until you know who won," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who is urging his state's lawmakers to shift the Sept. 14 primary by at least a month. "And you can't print ballots in five seconds. It takes several days to print a ballot. Then you have to put them in the mail."
Some states have said they may seek a waiver to avoid moving their elections. Although faxing and e-mailing ballots to overseas voters might be one solution, one congressman who supports the deadline said the goal should be to keep standards as uniform as possible.
"What I think election officials across the country certainly need to realize is, we need to make sure that those who are fighting in defense of our freedom have the ability to exercise the greatest freedom Americans enjoy, and that is the right to vote," said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).
Vermont's top election official is also urging that her state's primary be earlier. Other states with September primaries include Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Some states with mid-August elections, including Colorado and Washington, are also worried about a time squeeze. Colorado, New York, Washington and Wisconsin plan to request waivers.
Sending ballots overseas and back takes time. For members of the military in particular, Coffman and fellow advocates described a mail delivery maze that can chew up a month each way as items go from port to port and then compete with food, bullets and supplies in convoys headed to forward operating bases.
In January, the Pew Center on the States identified shortcomings with the turnaround of military and overseas ballots in 25 states. The report said that states mailed them out anywhere from 21 to 60 days before an election and found that it routinely takes several weeks to get them back -- sometimes too late to be counted.
In 2006, nearly 1 million of those ballots were requested, but only about one-third were cast or counted, according to a federal study.
Coffman has seen the issue from both sides, as a secretary of state for Colorado and as a Marine who hit snags when trying to cast a ballot while deployed in Iraq. He said he wasn't able to get an absentee ballot in 2005 because, at the time, his home state didn't permit scanned ballot applications by e-mail.
The new law affects 1.4 million military personnel and their 400,000 voting-age dependents, said Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. Embassy workers, contractors and other Americans living abroad would also be affected.
Carey will consider exemption requests from states that don't want to shift their primaries, decisions he'll make in consultations with the U.S. attorney general. He declined to say what a successful application might look like.
"A state has to show it has a proper plan in place to ensure that military and overseas voters are given proper time," Carey said.
Those that don't move up primaries or get a waiver could be subject to enforcement by the Justice Department.
According to the Pew study, 19 states allow for fax and e-mail transmission of ballots to and from voters. Some also provide blank write-in ballots as a backup. The new law demands that states adopt at least one electronic method of getting voting documents to military and overseas voters. But complying with the 45-day window is causing the most strain.
Katie Blinn, an election official in Washington state, said that the law fails to take into account that some states already build in a grace period for overseas ballots that come in after Election Day. Blinn's state counts ballots that come in up to three weeks after the general election, as long as they're postmarked by Election Day.
That more than accounts for the 45-day goal, yet Washington state -- with next year's primary set for Aug. 17 -- wouldn't get its ballots out soon enough under the law, because it takes weeks to certify the primary results.
"Our system of allowing people to delay voting until closer to Election Day is better, in terms of making an informed choice," Blinn said.
In Wisconsin, which has a 10-day post-election grace period and extends other options to military voters, there has been little appetite for holding the primary earlier than the traditional September time. Reid Magney, a spokesman for the board that oversees elections, said it would conflict with a state culture in which summer getaways are sacred and politics is put on the back burner.
"Things just don't get going here until September," Magney said.
There is concern that summer primaries could depress turnout for elections that draw relatively few voters, although voting experts couldn't point to research on participation drop-off.
Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said that August is a sleepy time for politics. But she sees a moved-up primary as the best way to serve deployed troops.
"Old habits die hard, and a September primary certainly is our tradition," Markowitz said. "I strongly believe that if we made a change to August, politicians would adapt. Voters would adapt."