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Thu., June 2, 2011

Editorial: Overseas voting worth some hassle to get right

The failure to accommodate overseas voters has long been a nettlesome issue. The chances of voting successfully were tied to particular states’ practices and deadlines. Congress addressed this in 2009 with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which normalized the standards and deadlines for states to meet. For instance, states now have to allow for a 45-day window for ballots to be sent out to overseas voters and returned.

But this caused headaches in many states, such as Washington, because their primary and general elections were held too closely together to comfortably comply with the law. Even after Washington state moved its primary election date from the middle of September to the middle of August, the window proved to be too narrow, especially if the primary required any recounts.

After the MOVE Act passed, the state was granted a waiver as it worked on a solution, but the feds made it clear that this was merely a temporary reprieve. During the just-completed legislative session, a sensible bill was passed that brings the state in line with the federal law and widens access to ballots for overseas voters. Though the military was the focal point, the new law will also help people who are in remote regions for whatever reason.

As with so many solutions these days, technology holds the key. Some areas of the globe have such poor postal service that it was impossible to stuff a ballot in an envelope and mail it back in time to be counted. With the new law, overseas voters can use fax or email to transmit their choices right to their county elections office without having to return the paper version for verification. Previous law stated that ballots would not be counted unless the follow-up paper version was received on time. But this requirement nullified the advantages of the high-tech solution.

However, the privacy of such a vote could be lost, and some people fear that computer hackers could intervene. So overseas voters will have to sign a waiver saying they understand the risks before choosing the fax or email option. Nonetheless, overseas voters could still choose the “snail mail” option if they would prefer the late-ballot risk.

Giving that choice to overseas voters was a better option than holding onto a system that often discounted their ballots.

In addition to the high-tech solution, the state has moved state primaries to the first week in August, which should give county auditors a reasonable amount of time to count the ballots in the primary and regroup for the general election.

These changes will cause some inconvenience and confusion at first, but they deserve support because they reflect a cherished principle of the widest possible participation in our electoral processes.

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