The MOVE Act was widely considered one of the bipartisan legislative success stories of 2009. We said earlier this year in our blog that it provides arguably the most significant changes for overseas and military voting since the original UOCAVA law passed in 1986.
It passed largely because of the universal agreement -- on both sides of the aisle, in the Department of Defense and state elections offices, and amongst voting rights advocates -- that our active military must be provided the time and means to vote, even from the front lines.
The symbolism of the soldier fighting for his or her country but who cannot participate in its most significant civic ritual is incredibly powerful...and motivating when it comes time for Congresspeople to vote.
This is why it’s so disappointing to see the issue politicized not even one year later.
The first such headline came out in FoxNews.com and accused the Department of Justice of encouraging states to get around the Act by applying for waivers. You need only read this response in the Election Law Blog from our President and CEO, Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat to know we find this particular set of allegations completely unfounded. (See also More than Just Waivers: State Compliance with the MOVE Act)
The issue has also come out in local races in at least two states, Colorado and Maryland.
There is always room for disagreement on the specifics of policy implementation. OVF is a non-partisan organization so our audience of voters contains the complete spectrum of opinion -- and that's how we want it.
We've heard some questions from voters on this latest round of headlines, however, so we're laying them out here for you to judge; we welcome your thoughtful comments in the spirit of a respectful debate.
What bothers us more about this debate than the charges themselves is that it masks what we think are the real pertinent and long-standing questions about voting rights and the appropriate priorities of election officials.
Everyone wants military and overseas voters to have sufficient time as well as appropriate and truly helpful online support to make overseas voting work. We really believe it is one of the few issues in Washington on which there is sincere consensus.
Yet planning elections can be like playing Whack-a-Mole: you fix one problem and another pops out somewhere else.
For example, in one state that did move its primary election this year to comply with the MOVE Act -- Minnesota -- student voters subsequently complained that an early August primary left them out. (See Young voters are feeling shunned, Star Tribune, August 5, 2010.)
This story reported on a group of college-age activists gathered at the State Capitol to complain about this week's August 10 primary date. They said that scheduling an election in the middle of summer vacation makes it harder for young voters to participate.
In another story out of Minnesota, one political analyst predicted the new primary date will be "murderous" for voter turnout and not just among young voters. This is because, goes the theory, family vacations and even the heat will discourage all kinds of voters from showing up for an August primary.
In this case, do overseas voters’ rights outweigh those of the stateside population, which might have preferred its old September primary date? (Debate Over Voter Turnout in Early Primary, Northland's Newscenter, August 5, 2010)
On the other hand, people made similar predictions about the primary elections in Illinois and Texas...but because they were too early in the cycle.
(Primary turnout is generally down this year; eventually political researchers will look at these numbers and try to figure out the causal relationships e.g. date changes, anti-incumbent rage, economic stress, etcetera. But it’s too early for that yet.)
These are the kinds of debates that really matter: whose needs rightly come first when it comes to scheduling and administering elections? What are the acceptable costs of a major change like moving a primary date?
Speaking of costs, let's not forget that some of the states that have applied for waivers to the MOVE Act -- which allow them to delay implementation until 2012 -- are virtually in budgetary states of emergency; I’m thinking here specifically of Hawaii and New York.
Implementing the MOVE Act -- which involves creating large-scale software solutions and moving primary elections dates -- is not free. Isn’t it credible that it might be necessary to delay MOVE Act implementation in a state like Hawaii that has recently had to cut costs by reducing the school week to four days a week?
Yes, we should indeed still be debating the impact of the MOVE Act, but not because the Department of Justice is failing to punish states for not acting fast enough. We should keep talking about it because too many people are ignorant of the nitty-gritty details of how elections are run and those details do influence the behavior of voters and non-voters.
A research paper published in August 2009 by our Research Director, Dr. Claire Smith, posed this exact question: Does public policy even matter? Based on a state-by-state analysis, she found that those states that had laws similar to the MOVE Act requirements did report higher ballot return rates and more satisfied voters.
So, yes, it's all important...important enough to not be distracted by red herrings. You should judge the specifics for yourself, but we remain adamant in our judgment that the MOVE Act is a truly bipartisan effort based on a shared interest in improving military and overseas voting turnout and that, so far, it has been a success.
A Chronology of Tit for Tat Headlines
DOJ Accused of Stalling on MOVE Act for Voters in Military
FoxNews.com, July 28, 2010
The Department of Justice is ignoring a new law aimed at protecting the right of American soldiers to vote, according to two former DOJ attorneys who say states are being encouraged to use waivers to bypass the new federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act....Full Story
Cornyn presses Attorney General Holder to protect the voting rights of U.S. Troopers
Wilson County News.com, July 29, 2010
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing serious concerns about recent reports on the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) reluctance to enforce the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), which requires states to send military voters their unmarked absentee ballots at least 45 days before Election Day....Full Story
Obama admin pushes back hard on right's charge that it's not protecting military voters
The Washington Post, August 2, 2010
Have you heard the right wing's latest attack on the Obama Justice Department? It goes like this: The department is "ignoring" a new law designed to protect the voting rights of overseas members of the military....Full Story
DOJ Responds to Accusation of Stalling on MOVE Act for Voters in Military
FoxNews.com, August 4, 2010
The Department of Justice denied accusations by former voting section attorneys who say states are being encouraged to use waivers to bypass the new federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act....Full Story
Is the DOJ Failing to Ensure Troops' Voting Rights?
FoxNews.com, August 4, 2010
There are new developments into accusations that the Department of Justice may not plan to actively enforce a law aimed at protecting the voting rights of troops serving overseas. The claims stem from remarks made by Department of Justice official Rebecca Wertz in February, speaking at a gathering of state elections officials....Full Story
Overseas ballots: The problem is politics, not voting
The Durango Herald, August 6, 2010
State Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, has been criticizing Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher's handling of voting by overseas military personnel. The situation, however, seems more political than problematic....Full Story
Ehrlich chastises state on military voting request
The Washington Post, August 6, 2010
Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took aim Thursday at the state's decision to seek a waiver from a new federal law that requires mailing absentee ballots to overseas military personnel at least 45 days before an election, a measure meant to ensure those votes are counted....Full Story
Republicans criticize voter waiver request
The Capital Hometown Annapolis.com, August 6, 2010
Maryland has requested a waiver from a federal election law requiring absentee ballots to be sent to military and overseas voters at least 45 days before an election, drawing the ire of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other leading Republicans....Full Story
New system lets Md. absentee voters print out their ballots, even overseas
Maryland Reporter.com, August 8, 2010
A new system launched last week by the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship will allow Maryland voters, even those overseas or in the military, to access and print out absentee ballots online. The topic became a small side issue in the race for governor last week....Full Story
Do you have an example of how the MOVE Act changed the voting experience for you this year? Comment here or email me.