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Judge orders Maryland to extend deadline for overseas voters

Maryland must extend its absentee ballot deadline by 10 days to accommodate uniformed service members or those who are otherwise overseas, a federal judge ruled Friday

Judge Roger W. Titus’ preliminary injunction comes in a U.S. District Court case brought against members of the state Board of Elections by the Military Voter Protection Project and an unnamed Maryland National Guard soldier from Montgomery County who is serving in Iraq.

The plaintiffs alleged Maryland failed to timely provide the absentee ballots to overseas voters, depriving them of the right to vote as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and other laws.

“We’re very pleased with [the injunction] and glad that the court decided that our service members should have sufficient time to vote,” said Eric Eversole, the executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project, which he founded in July in Washington, D.C. “I think it’s the least we can do to make sure these ballots have enough time to get back.”

Eversole, a veteran and former attorney in the Voting Section of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Friday’s ruling is in line with recent results in New York and Illinois.

Deputy Solicitor General William F. Brockman, who argued the case for the state, noted Titus dismissed three of the plaintiffs’ four claims. Until the remaining First Amendment claim is fully litigated, Brockman said, only the short-term effect of the case is clear.

“The long-range effect is a little bit harder to say, but it seems to have implications for all sorts of election time tables,” Brockman said.

Sorting out security concerns related to online voting or speeding up military mail could make a difference going forward, he added.

“The real solution here might be a technological one, not a legal one,” he said.

The absentee ballot deadline for Tuesday’s election was to be Nov. 12. Judge Titus’ order would push that deadline back to Nov. 22. The ballots must still be postmarked by Nov. 2.

According to the opinion, “federal-only” absentee ballots went out on Sept. 18, which complied with the 45-day window before Election Day required by federal law. However, the state’s primary results were not certified until Sept. 27.

On Oct. 8 — the Friday before the Columbus Day postal holiday — the state began sending ballots for the state and federal races.

“Given that international mail to military personnel can take 36 days for round-trip processing, and some absentee ballots for state office sent to these individuals were not likely postmarked until October 12, 2010, even the most diligent absent uniformed services or overseas voter might be unable to return his ballot by November 12th,” Titus wrote.

While the judge was “reluctant to interfere with Maryland’s election machinery,” he found the state’s interest in timeliness was outweighed by the risk of disenfranchising overseas voters.

“The right to vote has long been recognized as a fundamental political right, preservative of all other rights, and men and women stationed overseas should not be deprived of this fundamental right where the state can point to no compelling interest that would be served by doing so, …” the judge wrote. “Those in a foreign theater of war in the service of their country deserve nothing less than to be accorded fundamental constitutional rights.”

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