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Spin Control: Look at law can calm fuss over ballot waiver

Have you heard that lunkheads in Washington state are trying to take away that most precious right of our brave men and women dodging bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan? And that those Commie pinkos in the federal government are going to let them because it will help Democrats win some tight races in November?

Or something like that. It gets better – or worse – with each retelling of the reports that Washington state was granted a waiver from the federal law requiring military and overseas voters to be sent their ballots a month and a half before an election.

If it’s making your blood boil, congratulate yourself on your concern for military personnel. Then take a chill pill, as the kids would say.

True fact: Washington has one of the highest number of military personnel stationed inside its borders. From the Everett home port to Joint Base Lewis-McChord to Fairchild Air Force Base, the state has thousands of men and women in harm’s way at any given moment.

True fact: Washington state applied for, and received, a waiver to the federal Military and Overseas Voter Act requiring states to mail out ballots to deployed troops and other out-of-country voters 45 days before an election, to help ensure the ballot has a reasonable chance to reach them at some mountain outpost in Afghanistan or some ship in the Indian Ocean, give them time to mark it and send it back. The state doesn’t have to send out its ballots until Oct. 1.

Generally accepted theory: Military voters tend to be conservative men, so ballots that come in from troops overseas are more likely to be marked for Republican candidates than Democrats.

Working hypothesis: Washington state could have a really tight U.S. Senate race between Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Dino Rossi.

One should not string those two facts, the theory and the hypothesis together and conclude there’s a conspiracy afoot to sway the Murray-Rossi race, or the election in general. In truth, Washington got the waiver because it allows military voters more than 45 days to receive their ballots and get them marked, returned and counted.

There’s a quirk about Washington elections laws not understood by many people outside the state – including, apparently, Fox News, which had a series of critical stories Aug. 27 about the states seeking waivers. The quirk is that unlike most states, ballots don’t have to be received in Washington on election day, merely sent by that day. They have another 21 days to get to the appropriate elections office, be opened, counted and added to the final tally. And unlike ballots from stateside voters, a military ballot need not even be postmarked by election day, merely signed and dated – a recognition that military mail might not carry a discernable postmark until it reaches the US of A.

Even if some ballots aren’t mailed until Oct. 1 – a worst-case scenario for certifying everything from the Aug. 17 primary and printing general election ballots with the correct names on them – deployed military voters will have 51 days to cast ballots. That’s six days more than required by federal law. Military voters can also vote by fax and by e-mail in many counties.

Which is why the Defense Department granted the waiver to Washington: It meets or exceeds federal standards when all things are considered.

The state has a record of doing things to boost participation by military voters. One reason we now vote in mid-August rather than mid-September is to add a month to send out overseas ballots. Before the National Guard’s 81st Combat Brigade deployed to Iraq in 2008, the secretary of state’s office sent a team to the training center in Yakima to sign soldiers up for their ballots while they were in Iraq.

Among that team was state elections office attorney Katie Blinn, who tried – mostly in vain – to explain the peculiarities of Washington’s system to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly recently on a segment “Willing to serve. Able to vote?”

Last weekend, the state Republican Party’s Executive and Central committees passed a unanimous resolution calling for Secretary of State Sam Reed to withdraw the waiver request. “Failure to comply with this federal law will almost certainly result in disenfranchising the votes of our brave men and women serving in the military, who risk their lives protecting the voting rights of all Americans.”

At least the state GOP leaders didn’t accuse Reed of trying to throw the election for Murray. Probably because most of the committee members knew Reed is a Republican.

Spin Control, a weekly political column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at blogs/spincontrol, where you can see the exchange between Fox’s Megyn Kelly and attorney Katie Blinn.
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