Military Vote in Question After DOJ Gives Illinois 'Pass' on MOVE Act, Advocacy Group Warns

Military voters from the land of Lincoln could be shut out of the midterm election after the Justice Department reached an agreement with Illinois that gave the state "a pass" for violating federal election law, an advocacy group warned Monday.

The Justice Department hammered out the court agreement Friday addressing the failure of 35 Illinois counties to send military and overseas absentee ballots 45 days before the election -- a requirement of the MOVE Act. The agreement gave voters from six of those counties a few extra days to send back their ballots but did not specifically address the other 29 counties.

Eric Eversole, a former Justice voting section attorney who runs the nonprofit Military Voter Protection Project, told the deal effectively lets wayward Illinois election officials off the hook and does little to ensure the state's military voters get their ballots in time.

"For at least 29 counties, there were absolutely no consequences," he said. "Illinois is precisely the reason why you can't wait until a week before the election to try and resolve a clear violation of military voting rights."

For some overseas military voters, he said, "it might not get there."

The Illinois agreement was the final deal struck by the Justice Department to address states' failure to send their ballots out in time. While agreements with other states had tougher provisions compelling them to send out more express ballots and extending the deadline to receive them by many more days, Eversole's group said the Illinois decree gave "no meaningful relief" to military voters.

There is an online alternative for some military voters who do not receive paper ballots in time, and the administration is urging service members to use that option if they need to.

Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said in a written statement that voters from 30 states can access full ballots online.

"That number includes New York and Illinois, where we have the most significant problems with late ballot delivery," he said.

Military voters can visit to access the online system; all voters also can file federal write-in absentee ballots, which are available online and include federal candidates.

"Even if voters have not received their absentee ballots, it's not too late to vote," Carey said.

Nearly a dozen states have struggled to come into compliance with the MOVE Act. The Justice Department has reached agreements with eight of them, including Illinois, and has filed lawsuits against three of them. The department subsequently hammered out agreements with those three states -- New York, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement Friday that the Illinois agreement "will ensure that the state's military and overseas voters can participate in the upcoming federal elections."

The deadline to send out ballots, which 35 counties missed, was Sept. 18. For six counties where ballots were sent out between 16 and 20 days late, the agreement extends the deadline to receive ballots from Nov. 16 by two to three days. For those counties, the deadline to postmark the ballots moves from Nov. 1 to Nov. 2.

But the agreement does not offer a specific remedy for the 29 counties where ballots were mailed out between two and 12 days late. It instead includes a section that says election officials must mail out, either electronically or by express mail, "properly and timely requested" ballots they learn were not transmitted -- and then accept Nov. 2-postmarked ballots until Nov. 19. The decree also orders officials to make sure all requested electronic ballots are sent out.

Justice spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the 29 counties did not get extra time because they already have 14 extra days after the election for their ballots to be received. She said the ballots will get to them in time and if any voter's on-time ballot is not counted, "we can file a lawsuit."

Eversole, though, said the agreement just doesn't go far enough. He said it could have at the very least explicitly extended the deadline for all 35 counties. And he expressed concern that the agreement did little to prevent the violations from happening again in 2012, saying it sends the message that so long as states accept ballots after Election Day, they can ignore the 45-day requirement in the MOVE Act. The 45 days, though, were meant to give military voters enough time to receive and send back their ballots before Election Day.

"It's just the wrong message to send," Eversole said.