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Counties deal with military/overseas voting snafu

By Josh Richman
Tuesday, May 29th, 2012 at 5:35 pm in 2012 primary election.

Eleven California counties including Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco didn’t meet a federal law’s deadline for sending out vote-by-mail ballots to military families and other Americans living abroad, federal and state officials announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Justice simultaneously announced a lawsuit and a settlement agreement Tuesday to remedy the situation under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) for this June 5 primary vote.

“We know that we made a mistake, and we have scrambled to correct it before being told to do so,” Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir said Tuesday, acknowledging that his office sent ballots out late to 1,496 military and overseas voters – well over half of his county’s 2,450 total such voters, and about 18 percent of the 8,249 ballots that went out late statewide. “We are working to make this right.”

The long and short of it: In San Mateo, San Francisco and two other counties, officials must email all affected UOCAVA voters for whom the county offices have email addresses to notify them that if they have not yet received their ballots, they may choose to receive their ballots for the June 5 election by fax or email, instead of by postal mail; advise them of the option for returning a voted ballot by fax; and offer the option to return the ballot by express delivery at the county government’s expense. If the county has no email address for a voter, the county elections official must contact the voter by fax or telephone if that contact information is on file.

Weir in Contra Costa County and his peers in six other counties had already set about e-mailing affected voters and/or sending them out a second ballot by express delivery. For any they didn’t already reach, they’ll have to abide by the same conditions described above.

The UOCAVA requires that the state send absentee ballots to thousands of California’s eligible military and overseas voters at least 45 days before the election date. But that’s a task that ultimately falls to each of the 58 counties’ voter registrars, and despite Secretary of State Debra Bowen issuing four memos and holding a conference call with the registrars since November, 11 counties didn’t meet the deadline.

Weir said Contra Costa County had been part of a 13-county pilot program to use e-mail as the main method of sending ballots to military and overseas voters. But when that project fell through, the county used e-mail to send those voters their ballots anyway even though most of them had asked to get them by fax or mail, he said: “This was clearly a management mistake on our part.”

“Once we knew of our mistake, we moved very quickly to send a second ballot, in the manner that the voter had requested,” he said. “I think the stats on returns indicate that we have gotten to those voters.”

Weir said his county’s UOCAVA voters are 44.5 percent Democrat, compared to 49 percent countywide; 16.9 percent Republican, compared to 25 percent countywide; and 36.5 percent no-party-preference, compared to 21 percent countywide.

Bowen’s office reported today that of the 8,249 ballots transmitted after the 45-day deadline, most went out within two days after the deadline; only 41 military and overseas ballots were transmitted after April 27.

“Members of our armed forces, their families and overseas citizens are entitled to a complete and meaningful opportunity to vote, and the Justice Department is committed to seeking full access to the ballot box for all voters – regardless of where they are on Election Day,” Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a news release today. “The California Secretary of State worked cooperatively with the department and agreed to implement measures that will ensure California’s military and overseas voters will have the opportunity to fully participate in June’s primary election and future federal elections.”

Today’s deal, which needs an OK from a federal judge in Sacramento, also commits Bowen’s office to closely monitor and certify California counties’ transmission of UOCAVA ballots, conduct training of county election officials before the 2012 general election, give aid to its counties when necessary, and report back to the United States about its UOCAVA compliance for the 2012 federal general election and the 2014 federal election cycle. It also requires the California Secretary of State to investigate why these ballots went out late and then take whatever action is necessary to prevent future violations; Bowen will provide status reports to the Justice Department on those efforts.

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