Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
As Democrats and Republicans continue to urge county canvassing boards in
Florida to reconsider their earlier hasty rejection of non-postmarked
absentee military ballots, an examination of the Pentagon’s voting
assistance officer training materials reveals that the military
“de-emphasizes” the importance of postmarked ballots.
“The only postmark-specific reference is, ‘Voter must be overseas and have a foreign mailing address or APO [Army Post Office]/FPO [Fleet Post Office],’” Stars and Stripes said.
However, officials with the Federal Voting Assistance Program, in the October 2000 edition of “Voting Information News,” advised: “The Federal office portion of a ballot mailed from outside the United States will be counted if it is postmarked (or dated) by Nov. 7, 2000, and received by Nov. 17, 2000.”
The advisement, Department of Defense voting officials say, was sent as a reminder to service personnel to make sure their ballots received a postmark at the various military postal installations on board U.S. Navy ships and at land installations in the U.S. and abroad.
Nevertheless, Department of Defense requirements and military officer training aside, critics of the Florida canvassing boards that tossed out nearly 40 percent of the state’s military absentee ballots because they lacked a postmark point to a state statute that says a postmark is not absolutely required for them to be counted.
According to Florida statutes, “any absentee ballot cast for a federal office by an overseas elector which is postmarked or signed and dated no later than the date of the Federal election shall be counted if received no later than 10 days from the date of the Federal election as long as such absentee ballot is otherwise proper.”
according to a Pentagon directive(Editor’s note: This document is in .pdf format) dated Sept. 4, 1996, the Clinton administration designated Secretary of Defense William Cohen as the chief official who oversees the FVAP and, ultimately, the training it provides to military voting assistance officers.
According to the directive, one of the requirements of voting assistance officers is to “obtain and disseminate expeditiously” all voting and voting-related materials, including the “Voting Assistance Guide,” “Federal Post Card Applications” (SF-76) and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots.
Also, VAOs are required to make sure enough of each of these materials is available for all personnel at the command to which he or she belongs.
Yet, many service members have complained that they were not given such materials when they requested them because they either didn’t know they existed, had not been offered them or their commands did not have them available.
Further, the activities of the VAOs are supposed to be monitored by the inspectors general of each uniformed branch to ensure compliance.
In his letter, Warner said overseas military personnel should not be held responsible for having votes discarded because military postal clerks may have erroneously forgotten to postmark them.
So far, counties in Florida have thrown out about 1,400 ballots, even though — as critics point out — they were not legally required to do so if the ballots simply had no postmark but were received on time and met other requirements.