October 27, 2008 – “I am getting e-mails from people offering to buy my tombstone,” Fairfax County Registrar Rokey Suleman said Monday about the brewing controversy over his decision to comply with a Virginia law regarding a small class of absentee ballots for next week’s presidential election.
The ballots have fallen victim to the interplay between state and federal law and a rare set of factual circumstances. Federal law allows members of the U.S. military and other voters living overseas to vote in the general election using a federal write-in absentee ballot. The problem has been caused by the fact that when a Virginia voter decides to use the federal write-in absentee ballot both as a ballot to cast a vote and as an absentee ballot application, a separate Virginia law requires that the paperwork submitted by the voter include the address of the person acting as a witness for the voter.
But here’s the issue: neither the federal absentee write-in ballot itself nor its instructions mentions Virginia’s requirement that the witness’s address be included. In fact, the ballot form doesn’t even have a space to write down the witness address which Virginia requires.
Click here to see the federal write-in absentee ballot
As of Saturday night, Fairfax County, Virginia has received 63 absentee ballot applications that are subject to the legal snag and 6 or 7 of those 63 appear to be from members of the U.S. military, according to Suleman.
“I hate the law. I absolutely hate the law. The law’s ridiculous. The law needs to be changed,” Suleman told CNN. But as he reads the statute, he has no choice but to reject the ballots unless and until state officials tell him differently.
Click here to read more about Suleman’s position on the law
Linda Lindberg, Suleman’s counterpart in nearby Arlington County, has not received any absentee ballots yet that would be covered by the Virginia law and she concedes that Suleman’s reading of the law is technically correct. But the Arlington County Registrar says that if she was confronted with the situation, she would accept the ballots. “Our position is this is just common sense,” Lindberg said Monday, pointing out that Virginia’s requirement to provide the witness’s address is not on the ballot form and not in the ballot’s instructions. “Why should we be penalizing the voter for something they know nothing about?,” Lindberg added.
The McCain campaign and members of the military from Virginia held a press conference about the problem late last week and the Virginia State Board of Elections is aware of the conflict.
The state board “is working with the Office of the Attorney General to conduct a detailed review of both laws to guarantee that no undue hardship is placed upon voters who use the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot,” an October 25 press release on the Board’s Web site says.
“Everyone involved is taking a closer look at both Federal and State laws to ensure that every effort is made to count the votes,” the Board’s Secretary Nancy Rodrigues says in the release.
The problem with overseas ballots caught up between the state and federal requirements is set to be addressed at the Board’s October 28 meeting.
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