Did Washington State Disenfranchise Troops?

Democrat Christine Gregoire was sworn in as governor of Washington this week even though it took three counts for her to secure a victory of only 129 votes over Republican Dino Rossi, and even though questions remain about whether the state gave troops overseas an adequate chance to vote.

Gregoire, the former attorney general, finally pulled ahead of Rossi, a former state legislator, in the second recount after the state Supreme Court allowed the counting of 573 ballots from the heavily Democratic Seattle area that had been initially rejected because the voters had failed to sign their registration cards.

In a January 10 report, however, the Seattle Times revealed that the U.S. Justice Department had threatened to sue Washington State because it was so late in sending absentee ballots to military personnel overseas. Washington, in fact, was the last state to do so.

Washington held its primary September 14, and, under state law, counties were not required to mail absentee ballots–including those for overseas military–until October 18, two weeks before Election Day.

On July 21, according to the Times, the federal Departments of Defense and Justice wrote to Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed reminding him of the state’s need to meet deadlines for complying with the Overseas Citizens Voting Act. Washington responded that all but four counties would mail ballots by October 8, and the remainder would mail them the following week.

On September 29, according to the Times, Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. R. Alexander Acosta sent a follow-up fax noting that the military’s Federal Voting Assistance program recommended absentee ballots for the military be mailed 45 days before the election. The fax said postal authorities “have established that a minimum of 30 days is necessary for the round-trip transit of absentee ballots mailed to overseas voters and then sent back to election officials.”

“The Department of Justice remains ready to assist you in complying with this federal statute,” said Acosta’s fax. “However, we will not hesitate to take legal action if necessary to make sure that overseas voters are not disenfranchised.”

On October 7, the Times reported, State Elections Director Nick Handy sent an e-mail marked “URGENT” to all county auditors informing them that the Justice Department “is preparing a lawsuit to be filed tomorrow against the State of Washington.” But then Washington made a compromise with Justice that allowed the four slowest counties to immediately send write-in ballots to troops rather than regular absentee ballots.

“They just put their foot down,” Handy told the Times. “When you get a call from them and they say, ‘You’re doing something by tomorrow or we’re filing a lawsuit,’ it really gets your attention.”

As it turned out, time and the happenstances of war prevented some Washington military personnel from voting. Marine Cpl. Ted Lester of Snohomish County e-mailed the Times from Fallujah, Iraq: “As far as I know, I would be willing to bet a large amount of money that 95% of the people in my platoon, company and battalion did not receive a ballot. The other 5% did, but they received them burned beyond recognition and about 4-5 weeks too late.” Lester also noted that a mail truck in Iraq was blown up shortly before the election, and that he would have voted for Rossi but never got a ballot.

Rossi held a press conference December 30 with the parents of Tyler Farmer, a Marine injured in Iraq who did not get his ballot until the day after the election.

Last week, Rossi filed a state court challenge asking for a new vote. The challenge cites multiple issues, including the question of the military ballots. “Military overseas and other absentee voters may not have received or been sent their ballots in a timely manner and could have been disenfranchised by the neglect, mistake, or error of election officials,” it says.

State Democratic Party spokeswoman Lisa Cohen told the Times that no one had shown “broad disenfranchisement” of military voters.