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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Will overseas votes get counted?

By Geoff Ziezulewicz, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Wednesday, November 5, 2008

While Election Day passed for those back home Tuesday, many overseas military ballots will continue to arrive at local election offices in the next week, where different laws govern whether an overseas vote can be counted after Nov. 4.

To ensure that such ballots aren’t unfairly disqualified, a nonprofit military voter advocacy group established the Military Ballot Protection Program last week in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. Representatives say it will help cut down on the legal uncertainties surrounding these votes.

Aided pro bono by the law firm Bingham McCutchen, the National Defense Committee launched the program to help election officials better understand absentee ballot regulations as well, committee member Bob Carey said.

While it’s not yet clear how many overseas troops and military family members attempted to vote this year, numbers from previous elections are generally considered incomplete when it comes to overseas ballots.

But according to the best estimates by the national Election Assistance Commission, about 119,000 overseas military voters tried to vote in 2006, but fewer than half the ballots were actually counted. Anything from a wrong address to a missing signature can disqualify a ballot.

Private studies have placed the number of military members attempting to vote in 2006 as high as 660,000.

The main hope is that "precedents are not set" when it comes to disqualifying overseas military ballots, Carey said.

Absentee voting came to the forefront in Fairfax County, Va., last week, when a county official planned to discard 250 emergency federal write-in absentee ballots because they included a witness’ signature but not their address.

National Defense Committee representatives stepped in and asked the Virginia Board of Elections to review what it characterized as a misapplication of state law in Fairfax.

In the end, the state overruled Fairfax County’s interpretation of the law and those emergency ballots will be counted.

This week, Sen. John McCain’s campaign sued the state to allow for a deadline extension for the acceptance of military ballots, which is normally Nov. 4.

McCain’s camp contends that because some Virginia counties mailed absentee ballots out late this year, troops should get an extended deadline of about a week to get them back and counted.

Carey said the committee may take legal action against states with similar issues like Virginia.

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