Looks like Minnesota’s senate race isn’t the only one that’s going to keep us waiting for a winner: it’ll probably be at least another two weeks before anyone knows who won yesterday’s closely watched special election in New York’s 20th Congressional district.
As the New York Times reports, after yesterday’s balloting, a “mere 65 votes” separate the two candidates vying to fill the Congressional seat vacated by New York’s newest Senator, Kristen Gillibrand. Given that razor-thin margin, it may not be possible to declare a winner until all the absentee ballots are counted—and that may not happen until after April 13th.
Under New York state law, absentee ballots normally must be received within 7 days of an election to be counted. So the ordinary deadline for absentee ballots would have been April 6th. But various residents of the 20th district living overseas—including almost 500 active duty military—wouldn’t have had enough time to submit their ballots by then, because election officials didn’t send the ballots out in time. As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state, arguing that a federal law—the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or “UOCAVA”—required New York to give overseas voters extra time to submit their ballots.
The Justice Department and the state eventually reached an agreement to settle the dispute, under which New York agreed to count any absentee ballots received through April 13th.
Because the race is so close, the winner may not be announced until all those ballots from overseas are received and counted—and that could be another two weeks. The uncertainty and delay may be tough on the candidates, but it’s good for anyone who believes that maximizing citizen participation in elections is important. And it’s certainly good for the military and overseas voters who will have a chance to participate in the election.
Too often, they don’t have that chance, because election administrators routinely send absentee ballots out so late that there is not enough time for overseas voters—especially those in uniform—to cast their ballots. In fact, a report issued earlier this year by the Pew Center on the States determined that in sixteen states and the District of Columbia, by the time military personnel stationed overseas request, receive, complete and mail back their ballots, it is too late for their votes to be counted.
Fortunately, there are reforms pending in Congress and the states that should improve the way UOCAVA works and eliminate the risk of military and overseas voters being shut out of elections. Last week, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Michael Honda re-introduced H.R. 1739, which would amend UOCAVA to streamline the registration and voting process and increase the likelihood that overseas and military votes will count. And the National Conference of State Legislatures has observed that, at the state level, there is a “noticeable trend this year in efforts to facilitate voting for military and other overseas voters.” At the moment, 28 bills are pending in 15 states (including Alabama, Maine, Missouri, and Oregon). These proposals could go a long way toward improving UOCAVA voting on a state by state basis.
Whether or not the state and federal proposals to reform UOCAVA are all successful this year, the policy now in force for New York’s special election means that things are off to a promising start—even if that means a two-week delay in finding out who won.
And two weeks isn’t really such a long time: after all, come next week it will be five months since the November 2008 election—and we still don’t know who won the senate race in Minnesota.