By Kevin Lee Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – Even though 1 in 3 Illinois counties failed to comply with federal law when sending out military ballots, the Illinois State Board of Elections hopes to cut a deal with the federal government that will keep them out of legal hot water.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Illinois counties that were in violation of the Military Overseas and Voter Empowerment Act, or the MOVE Act.
The federal law passed last year mandated that ballots be sent out to military and out-of-the-country voters 45 days before an election.
For the Nov. 2 general election, the 45-day deadline fell on Sept. 18. About one-third of Illinois counties missed that deadline, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Maj. Brad Leighton, a veteran who served in Iraq and spokesman for the Illinois National Guard, said those who serve abroad in the military take their voting rights seriously.
“Service members, of course, have a bigger stake in the outcome of elections than a lot of people do because they are serving overseas in defense of the country and putting their lives on the line. So I think it’s absolutely vital that the votes of our military members be counted,” he said.
Rupert Borgsmiller, deputy director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the Justice Department and his state agency were negotiating a legal agreement.
He added that the Justice Department was ensuring that military and overseas voters were able to submit valid ballots.
“What they’re wanting to do is to ensure that the ballots that were sent out…not in a timely fashion, that the voters had the opportunity for those ballots to get back in and be counted with the election results as well,” he said.
Many local election officials sent their ballots to overseas and military absentee voters in the week following the deadline.
One of those officials, Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham, said he sent out 176 ballots on the following Monday, Sept. 20.
Cunningham said he waited to send out the ballot because there was a late change in a local election and a pending legal matter over the inclusion of Constitution Party candidates.
He added that the federal deadline pigeonholes local election authorities into sending ballots that are subject to change. That mean local authorities could have to create and send another, revised ballot to overseas voters.
“It’s going to increase the cost of the governmental, election authority and right now we have a very tight budget. So should it (the federal deadline) be met? Yes. Should it (the ballot) be sent out when it’s going to cost the taxpayers money? I think that needs to be looked at,” he said.
Borgsmiller said it was up to local election officials to get the ballots out to voters by the deadline.
“It’s not the State Board of Elections that produces the ballot and sends it out to the people who have requested them. It’s in the 110 election jurisdictions. All of the jurisdictions were notified that the 18th of September was the correct date,” he said.
Cunningham took full responsibility for missing this year’s deadline and said he would transmit ballots by the deadline in the next federal election.
Under Illinois law, military and overseas ballots are included in the official vote tallies as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 1 and local electoral officials receive them by Nov. 14.
Local election officials in other states have had similar problems meeting the MOVE Act deadline.
The Justice Department has investigated and come to legal agreements with states that failed to transmit ballots by that deadline, including most recently New York, New Mexico and Kansas.
“The Department is working with all states, including Illinois, 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,” said a statement from Department of Justice spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa.