Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Minnesota's success with military voting is example for other states

By Secretary of State Mark Ritchie

As other states struggle to implement new federal laws to help military voters, some are looking at what we have been able to do in Minnesota. Through a combination of legislative reforms and technology, we made it easier for our military personnel to vote and gave them more time to participate.

One of the biggest obstacles to voting faced by military personnel has been the lack of time available to receive, complete and return their ballots on time. Many are stationed in combat zones and remote places with inconsistent mail delivery services. While the process of receiving and returning an absentee ballot takes only a few days for a voter living in Brainerd, that same process may take more than a month for someone serving in Afghanistan.

Another barrier has been the intricate rules and procedures that often tripped up otherwise eligible voters. For example, some voters simply forget to sign their absentee ballot envelopes. These errors used to be discovered too late to notify voters.

Over the last three years the Office of the Secretary of State made military enfranchisement a priority and worked with the Pentagon, local election officials, legislators from both sides of the aisle, and the governor to improve the process.

We were able to get authorization for local election officials to send military voters their ballots by e-mail or fax. This cut ballot transit time in half, giving military voters more time to get their ballots returned before Election Day.

We successfully advocated for legislation requiring local election officials to immediately review returned military and overseas absentee ballots for errors so that replacements can be sent to provide voters a second chance to correct any problems that would otherwise prevent their vote from being legally counted.

We created a special easy-to-use website to help military and overseas voters cut through the red-tape. This free service has helped thousands of voters get their ballots and participate in our democracy.

We worked with the legislature to move Minnesota's primary a month earlier. Our late primary election left too few days for many of our service men and women serving abroad to participate in general elections. With help from the legislature we made it a requirement that absentee ballots be sent out at least 46 days before an election to voters who requested them to ensure that they had more time to return them before Election Day.

The results of these reforms and innovations have been dramatic. Military voting tripled from 2006 to 2008 with more than 3,000 service men and women successfully casting ballots. Military and overseas voters' absentee ballot rejection rates in 2008 were reduced-down to less than 2 percent compared to 3.5 percent for domestic absentee voters. Minnesota was recognized for its leading efforts to build overseas and military voter participation and for having one of the highest military and overseas voter satisfaction rates in the country in 2008.

Last month, Minnesota held its 2010 primary in August. While primaries are smaller than general elections, the results show that we continue to make progress. For example, by getting ballots out much earlier we were able to reduce the rejection rate for military and overseas absentee ballots to only .87 percent. This is compared to 3.4 percent for domestic absentee voters who still face complicated procedures.

These results are promising and reveal that commonsense reforms make a difference. Minnesota's success serves as a model for other states facing these same hurdles. It proves that by working with the Pentagon and voting assistance officers in the military, we can ensure that those fighting to protect our democracy can fully participate in it.

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