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Justice Dept. pushes states on new law to protect military voters

By Terry Frieden, CNN Justice Department Producer
  • The Justice Department has gone to court to force compliance with the law
  • The law says no election is final until all votes from military personnel abroad are in
  • States were supposed to get the ballots to personnel by 45 days before the election

Washington (CNN) -- The ballots of U.S. military personnel abroad -- even those in remote war zones -- must be received and counted before the November election results are declared final, the Justice Department's Civil Rights chief asserted Wednesday.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez told reporters his voting rights attorneys have repeatedly gone to court in recent weeks to force states to abide by the 2009 law designed to get ballots to soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen in time.

The new law, called the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, requires states to transmit absentee ballots to service members, their families and other overseas citizens at least 45 days before a federal election.

Eleven states and three other jurisdictions failed to do so, prompting the federal government to go to court in some cases.

So far, Perez estimates, the government actions have directly benefitted at least 65,000 voters.

Four states and one territory were compelled by courts to comply with the law. Wisconsin, New York, New Mexico, Illinois and Guam were ordered to provide ballots, and in most cases required to provide extra days to receive and count the ballots.

Most of the voters (43,000) are from New York. The court order requires New York to wait until November 24 to receive and count absentee ballots to ensure the military votes are tallied.

Perez, however, stressed that even in the most rural areas the government has forced action. In one county in Illinois only four military ballots were involved.

Perez said in most cases the states had problems because the requirement is in a new law with which they were not familiar. He said none of the cases involved intentional obstruction. Many of the administrative delays occurred at the county level.

However, in Illinois the Republican Party went to court to argue that in some cases it may be necessary for military personnel to cast ballots after Election Day. The Justice Department objected, insisting post-election voting has never been allowed. A federal judge Wednesday denied the GOP request.

Other jurisdictions where federal voting rights officials became involved in enforcing the MOVE Act were Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.