With less than three weeks to go before the midterm election, a growing number of states are coming under pressure from the Justice Department for missing a new deadline to mail ballots to troops and overseas voters.
Election officials in New York, New Mexico and Nevada have been sued by the federal government in the past week or reached agreements to give military personnel and other Americans living abroad more time to return ballots for this year's election.
At issue is a 2009 law that requires county election officials to send overseas ballots no later than 45 days before Election Day so voters can fill them out and mail them back in time to be counted. Most counties met the Sept. 18 deadline, but an unknown number did not.
"They're right to be taking action," said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat with the non-partisan Overseas Vote Foundation. "The message is that this is serious."About 992,000 overseas and military ballots were requested in the 2006 midterm election, but only a third of those were counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Seventy percent of those not cast were returned to local election offices as undeliverable.
The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act was intended to improve the rate of return rate by giving overseas voters more time. States with late primaries — in which election officials might not know which candidates would be on the general election ballot in time — were given extensions.
"The department is working with all states ... to investigate and remedy any problems that will prevent our men and women serving overseas from having the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted," Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement.
David Norcross of the Republican National Lawyers Association said the Obama administration should have done more, sooner. "My hunch has always been that there are many, many more problems," he said.
Among the states under scrutiny:
•The department sued New York after nine counties, including those in New York City, missed the deadline. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who wrote the overseas voter law, called on officials to extend the deadline to receive ballots by at least 10 days.
•The department sued New Mexico after six counties missed the deadline. The lawsuit was settled after state officials agreed to count absentee and overseas ballots received by Nov. 6.
•Hinojosa confirmed the department is investigating whether Illinois counties met the deadline after a county clerk said a pending court decision delayed the printing of ballots.
Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives for the Pew Center on the States, said local officials were hit with a double whammy of dealing with a new law for the first time and also an Election Day that falls early in November this year.
"Every day that goes by there's more danger that a voter won't be able to cast a ballot," he said.