Expatriate U.S. Voters Finding It Easier to Receive Ballots
by BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON — As the effect of a new law protecting the rights of overseas U.S. voters is felt, those voters are reporting an easier time in requesting and receiving ballots. But a very substantial number of their ballots still went uncounted in the 2010 midterm elections, according to a private foundation.
“There was definitely an indication from the voters themselves that there was improvement,” Claire M. Smith, research director for the Overseas Vote Foundation, said Thursday in explaining the group’s findings. “One voter said, ‘For the first time in 34 years, I got my ballot on time.”’
Improved procedures received a major impetus with the 2009 passage of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. Among other things, the law requires states to transmit requested absentee ballots to overseas voters no later than 45 days before a federal election, unless the state requests and is granted a waiver, with Defense Department approval.
Partly as a result, all 50 states last year provided for the electronic transmission of blank ballots to voters, mainly via e-mail or online download.
The foundation asked for input from people on its mailing list or from those who reached its Web site on their own. The group is self-selected, meaning the findings are not scientific, but they can still provide a snapshot of the views of the 5,000 politically active expatriates who participated in 2008 and 2010.
Among those who participated in 2010, for example, one-third said they had been unable to vote either because they did not receive a ballot or got it too late. That was still an improvement over 2008, when half reported that problem.
Thomas E. Perez, an assistant U.S. attorney general whose division oversees voting rights issues, including expatriate voting, said 12 jurisdictions, including some overseas territories, had applied last year for waivers of the 45-day requirement. Six of those were denied.
In general, though, he said, “the states made remarkably fast progress” in carrying out their new obligations.
Mr. Perez said that a 2008 case involving Virginia had raised a particularly sensitive argument. When a court ruled that the state had violated the voting law by failing to mail ballots in timely fashion, the state, he said, asserted that it should not have to count late-arriving ballots — “because they didn’t make a difference” in the outcome.
The court, Mr. Perez said, “categorically rejected those arguments” and ordered that all ballots be counted.
Ms. Smith of the Overseas Vote Foundation pointed to some other problems with interpretation of the new law. Whereas it bars states from rejecting ballots because they have not been witnessed or notarized — which some states required in the past — it does not explicitly bar the language still on some ballots suggesting that they be witnessed or notarized. “This, we found, had a very distinct chilling effect,” Ms. Smith said.