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Feds threatened to sue over military ballots

Associated Press

OLYMPIA – The U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue the state about a month before the November election, saying Washington was moving too slowly in mailing military ballots overseas.

State Elections Director Nick Handy sent all county auditors an urgent e-mail about the threat on Oct. 7. At the time, Washington was the only state in the country that had not yet mailed its overseas ballots.

“They just put their foot down,” Handy told the Seattle Times for a story in Monday editions. “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.”

Republican Dino Rossi has made military ballots, generally seen as GOP votes, a central part of his call for a new election for governor. He won the initial tally by 261 votes, then a machine recount by 42, but lost a hand recount to Democrat Christine Gregoire by 129.

Rossi and the state Republican Party say many military voters serving overseas either never got their ballots or received them too late to vote.

Last Friday, Rossi and the state GOP filed a lawsuit challenging the election, claiming that mishandled military ballots and a host of other problems made it impossible to know who won.

Under state law, counties were required to send absentee ballots for the Nov. 2 election, including ballots for the military, by Oct. 18 – a tight deadline because the state’s primary was Sept. 14.

All but one of the state’s counties got their ballots mailed by Oct. 8, the deadline the feds set in a conversation with the state attorney general’s office earlier that week, Handy told the Associated Press.

Island County fell a few days behind, and the Justice Department did not indicate it would pursue any legal action over the delay, Handy said.

The rush to mail out ballots came a little over a week after Assistant U.S. Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta faxed a reminder that the military’s Federal Voting Assistance Program strongly recommends mailing ballots 45 days before the election, which would have been less than a week after Washington’s primary.

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

The secretary of state’s office told the Justice Department that all but a handful of counties would have ballots in the mail by Oct. 8, with the rest coming early the following week.

“Justice said that is not acceptable,” Handy said.

As a compromise, Franklin, Pend Oreille, San Juan and Whatcom counties mailed out federal write-in ballots – special absentee ballots on which voters write down candidates’ names instead of filling in bubbles – instead of regular ballots to meet the feds’ deadline.

Justice Department spokesman Eric Holland declined to comment on the matter Monday.

Some counties took extra measures to make sure military personnel received ballots. Clark County, for instance, sent letters to servicemen and women asking for e-mail addresses and fax numbers so the county would be better prepared in case their ballots didn’t arrive in time.

Military and overseas voters can ask their home county to fax or e-mail ballots to them, something King County did in some cases. Ballots can be faxed back as well.

“There is no reason for a military member who wants to vote to not be able to cast a ballot,” said Pam Floyd, the state’s assistant elections director. “But they do have to make an effort.”

Some military personnel overseas say it was difficult to get information about where to send write-in ballots.

In an e-mail from Fallujah, Marine Cpl. Led Lester of Snohomish County told The Times the mail system in Iraq “is a joke,” noting that one mail truck was blown up a week before the election.

“As far as I know, I would be willing to bet a large amount of money that 95 percent of the people in my platoon, company and battalion did not receive a ballot,” Lester wrote. “The other 5 percent did, but they received them burned beyond recognition and about 4-5 weeks too late.”

Lester said he never got his ballot.

Last week Secretary of State Sam Reed unveiled a package of election reforms that included moving the primary from September to June, in part to give election workers more time to address close races, and get ballots to and from military and overseas voters.

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