The special election to represent Alexandrias West End in the Virginia House of Delegates has been interesting political theater, resulting in a razor-thin 16-vote margin of victory (unusual for Alexandria) for Democrat Charniele Herring over Republican Joe Murray. That this slight margin was upheld after Monday nights recount is not surprising. What is disturbing about this recount is a larger issue that seemingly rears its ugly head in every American election be it local, state, national, scheduled or special: the disenfranchisement of Americans living overseas, particularly military personnel.
When viewed in the context of Americas ever-more lenient voter registration and voting laws, the exclusion of ballots from our soldiers is particularly noxious. There has been a great deal of looking the other way the past few years as groups such as ACORN have rushed to register huge numbers of voters, many of dubious legality. We have bent over backwards, trying to discern voter intent in hanging chads. We have allowed early voting in most states, so much so that the notion of election day is largely a thing of the past. Why then, in election after election, does this issue of disenfranchisement of military personnel persist?
The answer varies, is not simple and depends on both federal and state laws. Sometimes its petty and partisan, as when the Fairfax County registrar disallowed most Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots (FWABs) in Novembers election because the ballots did not include the address of the witness (despite the fact that no other type of Virginia absentee ballot requires a witness address and federal law states that FWABs cannot be treated differently.) Thankfully, that decision was overruled by Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell.
Sometimes overseas ballots are tossed out for arriving late even if the state in question has not complied with federal law that requires ballots to be mailed to overseas citizens at least 45 days prior to an election. This is what McCain-Palin alleged when they filed suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections last November.
Sometimes its a technical interpretation of state law, as in our own recent 46th District election. Virginia state law requires that absentee ballots, overseas or domestic, be returned by Election Day. Some might argue that returned means mailed by Election Day, but Virginias Board of Elections interprets state law to define returned as received. Thus, 17 ballots, more than the margin of victory, were rejected because they arrived late, though they were postmarked before Election Day.
Rather than parsing hairs or trying to define is, states and the federal government should take immediate, concrete steps to ensure that overseas voters who comply with timeliness and voter registration requirements have their votes counted and their voices heard in American elections. One easy step would be to have a 45 day rule: overseas voters would have 45 days from the date a ballot is mailed from a state registrar to have said ballot back to the state. If state officials do not mail ballots until 30 days prior to an election, then ballots would be counted for up to 15 days following Election Day. We encourage Virginias House of Delegates, led by its newest member, Ms. Herring, to make this issue a priority.