Will those who fight for our freedom get the opportunity to vote?

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Will those who fight for our freedom get the opportunity to vote?

By PATRICK DONOHUE pdonohue@beaufortgazette.com 843-706-8152
Published Saturday, October 30, 2010   |  657 Words  |  

Military voting advocates fear American troops stationed and fighting overseas may again get the short end of the stick on Election Day.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that several states -- most notably New York and Illinois -- failed to get ballots to troops deployed overseas at least 45 days before Tuesday's election as required by federal law.

"There are laws in place to make sure ballots get to our servicemembers in time, and they just didn't," said Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project. "It just doesn't seem to be a priority in some communities, and we don't have anyone watching or standing up to make sure our servicemembers have time to vote."

The 45-day deadline was enacted as part of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act passed by Congress last year to protect the voting rights of servicemembers, their families and other overseas citizens.

The law also requires states make voter registration applications, absentee ballot applications and blank ballots available electronically.

South Carolina was among the states that sent out ballots out on time, according to the Justice Department.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission, said South Carolina has been transmitting voting materials electronically to military and overseas voters since 2006.

"Our mission is to ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot and be reassured that their vote will be counted," Whitmire said. "We are happy with the fact that we have a process that allows us to get ballots to voters in hard-to-reach locations."

As of last week, the S.C. Election Commission had sent 1,535 ballots to military or overseas voters, 780 of which have been returned, Whitmire said.

Given the recent passage of the law, voting groups knew 2010 might be a tumultuous year for military and overseas voters, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the Overseas Vote Foundation.

"This is the first year for major reforms across all states," Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. "We went in knowing things weren't going to be perfect. Despite all of the jumping up and down, we are in a better position now than we've ever been before. We've made more progress on this issue in the past five years than in the last five decades."

According to a study published in November by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 480,757 ballots were transmitted to military voters during the 2008 election. Of those, 320,950 were returned, and 309,629 were counted, according to the study.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who also is the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said a year may not have been enough time for some states to overhaul existing elections law.

"The MOVE Act is the greatest thing since sliced bread," Dunlap said. "We all think this is a good idea, and we all want to do this. Nobody has said this is a stupid idea but some Secretaries of State have nothing to show but the palms of their hands."

The silver lining of the recent controversy, Dunlap said, is that the military voting issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.

"I'm glad that people are concerned about this issue because for a long time, they weren't," Dunlap said. "The biggest challenge in this case, is how do you get a ballot in the hands of someone who is in a rifle company in the mountains of Afghanistan and get it back?"

Eversole said it is up to federal, state and local officials to figure that out.

"You have people over there fighting for our rights ... and they have had their voices silenced," Eversole said. "It's important that we find a solution so that these voters do not continue to be disenfranchised."