Military voting: a tale of two counties

Fairfax County is Virginia’s wealthiest and most populous county.  Fairfax County is in the forefront of facilitating election participation by members of the armed forces, especially those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and on ships at sea, where mail service is often slow and intermittent.

As recently amended, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires local election officials to mail absentee ballots 45 days before Election Day, so that military personnel will have sufficient time to receive their absentee ballots, mark them, and return them on time to be counted, no matter where the service of our country has taken them.  In 2010, Fairfax County beat that deadline by ten days.

“I expect to be outside the country on Election Day, and I have already cast my absentee ballot.  As a Fairfax County taxpayer for many years, I am proud to say that in my county the systems work,” Rear Admiral James J. Carey said.

Cross the Potomac River on the American Legion Bridge and you are in Montgomery County, Maryland’s wealthiest and most populous county.  Like Fairfax County, Montgomery County has a reputation as a county where you pay a lot in taxes, but at least you can say that your county government’s systems work, but Montgomery County’s absentee voting system does not work for the county’s sons and daughters serving in our armed forces overseas.

While Virginia held its primary on June 8, Maryland waited until September 14, just 49 days before the general election.  Until the results of the primary have been officially certified, local election officials cannot print general election ballots, much less mail them out.  To avoid being sued by the Department of Justice, Maryland agreed to send out ballots on September 18 (the 45th day before Election Day), but those ballots included only federal offices (U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative).

Maryland expects to mail full absentee ballots on October 18, just 15 days before the November 2 general election.  Maryland counts ballots received up to ten days after the election, but that still leaves Maryland 20 days short of UOCAVA’s 45-day standard.

In Montgomery County, even the October 18 date may be missed.  There are two pending lawsuits about two proposed ballot questions.  The proponents submitted more than enough signatures, but the County Board of Elections rejected many of the signatures on hyper-technical grounds.  Until those lawsuits are settled, general election ballots cannot be printed.

According to the Department of Defense, there are 27,051 active duty service members who are eligible to vote in Maryland.  These folks pay Maryland state income tax, through withholding from their salaries, no matter where the service of our country has taken them.  Moreover, it is only through their sacrifices that all of us have the opportunity to vote in free elections.  I think that it is unconscionable that Maryland can find these 27,051 personnel to collect their tax money, but not to make it possible for them to participate in the election of the governor, the state legislature, and other non-federal offices.

Captain Wright is the Director of the Service Members Law Center at the Reserve Officers Association.