Midwestern election officials tout advantages of new military voting act

Monday, December 7, 2009 | 4:39 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Four top Midwestern election officials used the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to tout changes to federal election rules that will allow military personnel overseas to receive election ballots electronically.

The National Defense Authorization Act, approved by Congress in October, also allows troops to return their ballots through expedited mail service at no charge and gives them a way to verify that their ballots have been received back home.

On Monday, Democrat Robin Carnahan of Missouri, Republican Ron Thornburgh of Kansas, Democrat Michael Mauro of Iowa and Republican John Gale of Nebraska spoke at the National World War I Memorial in Kansas City in support of the changes.

"We are finally as a country catching up with what our obligations should have been all along," Thornburgh said. "Those men and women who are putting themselves in harm's way, those American citizens who are overseas, have always had the right to vote. Now we have developed a mechanism that not only guarantees that right, but the opportunity to cast their vote to be part of this process they're working so hard to defend."

Carnahan cited a study conducted earlier this year by the Pew Center on the States that found it can take up to 18 days to transmit mail to or from a military member overseas, which can make it difficult for ballots to be returned in time to be counted.

According to that study, titled No Time to Vote: Challenges Facing America's Overseas Military Voters, three of the states represented at the news conference — Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas — already provided ample time for military members overseas to receive and return election ballots.

Missouri was one of nine states cited in the study that give military voters fewer than 45 days to receive and mail back completed ballots. Overall, 25 states and the District of Columbia were listed as needing to improve absentee balloting rules for military voters abroad.

"The difference we're going to see in Missouri is that in the past we were required to mail blank ballots to service members overseas," Carnahan said. "There were some time constraints in doing that prior to the election because ballots weren't printed that much prior to election."

Now, according to the new rules, states are required to make absentee ballots available electronically at least 45 days before a federal election.

The law applies to only federal elections, but Thornburgh said that most state elections coincide with national ones.

Gale said a big benefit of the new rules is that voting will be consistent for military members, regardless of where they're from.

"The uniform deadlines and rules from state to state will help ease confusion at the military bases where men and women from across the country are serving together," he said. "Now no matter where a voter is from, everyone will have the same requirements and the same deadlines."

The four secretaries of state were in Kansas City for the Midwest Election Officials Conference being held in nearby Overland Park, Kan., through Wednesday.


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