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New York is sued for missing deadline on overseas ballots

By Ed O'Keefe
Thursday, October 14, 2010; B3

The Justice Department is suing the state of New York for missing deadlines to mail ballots to overseas troops as part of a new federal overseas voting law after settling a similar case with New Mexico.

The legal action comes less than three weeks before Election Day and as Republican attorneys are urging the Obama administration to closely monitor the distribution of the absentee ballots.

The 2009 MOVE Act requires states to mail absentee ballots 45 days before Election Day to troops, government workers and other Americans who want to vote from abroad. The law required the Defense Department to establish procedures ensuring the swift delivery of ballots to troops, and the Pentagon also urged service members to obtain ballots.

This year's national deadline was Sept. 18, but the Defense Department permitted New York to mail ballots by Oct. 1 because the state's primary day was just four days before the deadline. State election officials had until Nov. 15 to count the absentee ballots, but four New York counties and New York City's five boroughs failed to mail ballots by the deadline, forcing the Justice Department to file suit Tuesday and request an extension of the deadline for counting ballots.

"Our laws guarantee that uniformed service members and other overseas citizens will have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the elections of our nation's leaders," Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in a statement.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the MOVE Act, called on his home state to quickly deliver ballots and extend the deadline to Nov. 23.

"This is the least New York can do to make sure that none of our troops are disenfranchised," he said.

Absentee ballots from troops serving overseas could tip the scales in close congressional elections that include military bases. Rep. Bill Owens (D) is facing a tough reelection campaign against Matt Doheny (R) in New York's 23rd District, home to the massive Fort Drum Army Base.

"It's unacceptable that any state would fail to meet" obligations of the MOVE Act, said David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association. The group assists GOP candidates with election-law issues.

"The Obama administration must act swiftly to guarantee that every service member receives his or her ballot in time to vote," Norcross said.

The Justice Department settled a similar case with New Mexico on Tuesday, as six state counties failed to meet the deadline.

Voters from those counties who requested overseas ballots by Sept. 18, and send them by Nov. 2, will be counted until Nov. 6, according to the settlement. The Justice Department is also suing Guam and has settled with five other states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands for violating the law.

Government lawyers also are in discussions with other states, including Illinois, sources said.

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