By: Christine Morabito – May, 2014
Despite a federal law intended to fix the injustice, U.S. servicemen and women remain the most disenfranchised group in this country. The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) was passed by Congress in 2009 and signed into law by President Obama. The most important provision requires states to mail overseas absentee ballots at least 45 days before an election.
Full compliance in Massachusetts would require the legislature to change the date of our primary election from September to June or early August to accommodate recounts and allow enough time to print and mail ballots by the deadline. Changing a primary is complicated, but we have done it before. In 2012 we changed our state primary from Sept. 18 to Sept. 6, so as to not conflict with Rosh Hashanah. That was very nice, but it did nothing to ensure that overseas citizens had enough time to vote. Surely, this little inconvenience is the least we can do for those who make the ultimate sacrifice for us.
The MOVE Act not only affects military personnel living overseas, but students, Peace Corps volunteers, health workers, missionaries, citizens working abroad and civilians working for the U.S. government. According to the State Department, in 2012 there were an estimated 5.25 million U.S. citizens living abroad.
In 2010, MA, along with 4 other states, was granted a waiver from the Department of Justice for “undue hardship,” based on our primary date being so close to the general election. In his August 2010 column, “Outrage: Pentagon Grants Five States Waivers from MOVE Act,” J. Christian Adams wrote: “Since MOVE passed last October, Massachusetts did nothing to adjust their late September 14 primary to comply. (This was the same state that introduced and passed legislation in mere days so that Senator Paul Kirk could be sworn in to vote for Obamacare. The legislature previously stripped Republican Mitt Romney of the power to appoint replacements and required a special election.) It’s a shame soldiers aren’t as important as Senator Kirk’s vote was. …”
Thomas Perez, the Justice Department’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights reported that one third of overseas troops who wanted to vote in 2010 could not.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have all adjusted their primaries to accommodate the MOVE Act’s 45-day advance mailing requirement. Having had three and a half years to comply, Massachusetts should have done better. There have been attempts. In 2011, Rep. James Dwyer filed legislation to change the primary date to June. The measure, H1972, drafted by Woburn City Clerk, William Campbell, would allow overseas voters adequate time to vote. H1972 had the bipartisan support of city and town clerks from 100 communities. But, on Beacon Hill, this bill was about as popular as a skunk at lawn party. Incumbent politicians saw an earlier primary as a disadvantage, since it would extend their campaign season. To compromise, Campbell proposed two subsequent bills, the most promising being H574, submitted by Representatives James Dwyer, David Vieira and Randy Hunt, which would move the primary to August. However, it seems likely our legislators will let this bill die in its crib. Clearly, retaining their seats is more important. What a shame. Our U.S. soldiers make protecting our freedoms a priority. We should thus make it a priority to protect their civil rights.
I spoke with a soldier from Natick who was based in Kandahar Province in 2012. He attempted to vote in the November 6 presidential election, but did not receive his ballot until late November. That same year, a female soldier from Falmouth was at sea in Japan. When she and her fellow soldiers realized they would not get their ballots on time they attempted to vote online through the Federal Voting Assistance Program. Their efforts failed and their votes were not counted. If these voters were disenfranchised in 2012, then 2014 promises to be far worse. Our primary election is Sept. 9, giving the state about 10 days to certify elections, handle recounts, design and print ballots and distribute them to 351 city and town clerks, who must THEN mail them overseas. 10 days! It doesn’t seem humanly possible. It is unclear whether the state will be applying for a waiver this year.
Campbell says solving overseas voter disenfranchisement is “an easy fix.” But rather than move our primary date, as so many other states have done, Massachusetts lawmakers seems content with making meager concessions. These gimmicks, while giving the illusion of fairness, come with their own set of problems. If returning overseas ballots are postmarked by Election Day they will still be accepted up to 10 days after the election. But that’s after the election. Don’t the men and women fighting and dying for our country deserve to be more than an afterthought? Overseas voters can opt to vote electronically if time is limited. However, by choosing this method they must waive their right to a secret ballot. That’s unacceptable. How can we in good conscience ask that of any U.S. citizen?
On the federal level, commitment from our leaders has been mixed. The Department of Justice has filed lawsuits with Alabama, Michigan, Vermont, Wisconsin, New York, New Mexico and Guam for noncompliance with MOVE. Yet they seem to be giving Massachusetts a pass. We deserve to know why.
I contacted MA Secretary of State, William Galvin’s office at the time of this writing for evidence of our state’s compliance, but they did not return my call. Ditto: the Department of Justice. It is disheartening that those who work for the people are so unavailable when the people have questions. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have been submitted.