Monday, June 1, 2009

Assembly bill would give overseas and military voters more time to vote

Should military and overseas voters be given more time to get their ballots delivered? That's what would happen if AB 1340 is enacted. The bill, authored by Assembly Member Bonnie Lowenthal and sponsored by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, would require county election offices to count absentee ballots from overseas and military voters that arrive within ten days of Election Day, as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day. Last Thursday it sailed out of the Assembly on a unanimous vote and is now headed to the Senate.

As the Pew Center on the States highlighted in its landmark study, No Time To Vote, military voters from half of the U.S. states are not provided ample time to successfully request and cast their absentee ballots (California was found to provide ample time, but only if military voters return their ballots back by fax). A recent Congressional Research Service study requested by Senator Chuck Schumer found that among the seven states with the highest numbers of people serving in the military (including California), more than 25 percent of the ballots requested or returned went uncounted in the last Presidential election. California's Secretary of State has also compiled county-by-county statistics showing how many absentee ballots get sent out, returned, and counted.

While Lowenthal's bill is enjoying strong, bipartisan support in the Assembly, its passage would mark a significant departure in California election policy, representing the first time that ballots received after the close of polls would be eligible to be counted. As the Assembly Elections Committee consultant Ethan Jones points out in his bill analysis. The analysis also notes that Lowenthal's is not the only bill to extend the deadline for receiving and counting overseas absentee ballots; two other bills - AB 1367 by Nathan Fletcher and SB 582 by Robert Dutton - were also introduced. Although neither bill has advanced, the fact that they stalled out may have more to do with the fact that they are authored by Republicans operating in a Democratic-controlled Legislature than with the substance of the measures. There are, however, some significant differences between Dutton's bill and Lowenthal's bill; SB 582 would have given both overseas and domestic military voters the ballot deadline extension, but excluded overseas non-military voters ballots from the change. The extension deadline in Dutton's bill was also longer, 21 days compared to 10 in Lowenthal's bill.

If California were to make the process for voting overseas more reliable and successful, it would likely alleviate pressure from some quarters to move toward Internet voting. While some argue that Internet voting is the solution to time delays involved in casting a paper ballot from overseas, the truth is that Internet voting would create a whole new set of problems that would relegate overseas ballots to security risks and second-class status. There are, however, a number of ways the Internet can and should be used to facilitate overseas voting, such as providing an easy way to request an absentee ballot, look up one's registration or absentee ballot status, and access reliable election information. For California's overseas and military voters, their access to such services largely depends on where they are registered and whether that county provides them.

Of course, such services are beneficial for all voters, not just those stationed or living overseas. And inevitably, if AB 1340 or other similar bills are enacted, some may wonder why we don't give all absentee voters the right to have their ballots counted if they are received a few days after the election but postmarked by Election Day? This is, in fact, one of the complaints I hear the most from absentee voters. Many want to hold on to their ballots as long as possible so they can benefit from all of the election discussions and news coverage, but they don't want to wait too long to drop that ballot in the mail and risk the chance that their votes will not be counted.

So what's the downside? Postmarks may be hard to validate, especially if they are from overseas. Postmarks can also be created using in-house postage meters, which opens up the possibility for fraud. In a close contest, ballots received after Election Day may be viewed as suspect and possibly attempts to tilt the outcome.

California already has taken a number of steps to facilitate timely balloting by overseas and military voters. These include giving such voters their ballots sixty days prior to the election (a full month earlier than regular vote-by-mail voters) and also the opportunity to return their ballots by fax. Whether the Legislature will go even further and take the unprecedented step of extending the ballot return deadline for overseas and military voters remains to be seen. The next stop for AB 1340 is a hearing in the Senate Elections Committee on July 7.

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