According to the Pew Elections Performance Index for Minnesota for 2010 (screenshot above), 7.34 percent of military and overseas ballots were rejected, putting the North Star state at 29th is this category, while 34.99 percent of military and overseas ballots were not returned, putting us at 11th.
Overall, the state ranked second in performance, while North Dakota was first. Obviously, we should do better when it comes to counting military ballots, but the system isn't a farce that might prompt Duffel Blog-esque satire.
But it's apparently not the completely awful situation that former state representative Dan Severson is decrying, either. We present two recent examples for your consideration.
On August 23, endorsed Republican Secretary of State candidate Dan Severson posted four pictures on his campaign Facebook page of a larger-than-life petition for a "Military Votes First" petition under the following text:
Where does that "only 5% of our active military's votes were counted" figure come from?
As as far as we have been able to determine, it's from the Military Voter Protection Project report, Military Voting in 2010: A Step Forward, But A Long Way To Go and the figure isn't specific to Minnesota, but rather reflects this statement:
Of the 2 million military voters covered by this report, only 4.6 percent of those voters cast an absentee ballot that counted in 2010. This percentage represents a significant decrease from the last mid-term election in 2006, when 5.5 percent of military and overseas voters were able to cast an absentee ballot that counted.
It's not that there was a deliberate effort to not count the vote; the larger problem appears to be that eligible active duty members of the military don't cast ballots.
As far as returned votes go, the report states:
States generally did a good job of counting absentee military ballots if the ballot was returned. Overall, the states in this report counted more than 94 percent of all ballots that were returned.
What Minnesota's military voters require are easier systems for registering and casting absentee ballots that will help create a higher participation rate, a problem that isn't particular just to us. The report notes:
At least two states, Minnesota and Nevada, took advantage of this change in 2010 and required military voters to request absentee ballots for that specific election. 20 In other words, the 2010 survey data from these states reflects the total number of absentee ballots requested by military voters in 2010. Once again, the data paints a disappointing picture.
In these two states, the absentee ballot request rate ranged from 5.8 percent of the total number of military voters in Nevada to 6.9 percent in Minnesota. Collectively, only 2,656 of the 42,672 military voters in these states requested an absentee ballot in 2010—that is, an overall absentee ballot request rate of 6.2 percent. In our view, this data underscores the critical need for greater registration and absentee voting assistance for our men and women in uniform.
It's not that voters' ballots are left uncounted. It's that registration and absentee voting is difficult.
The Minnesota legislature approved online registration in the last session (and retiring Secretary of State Mark Ritchie unilaterally implemented a system before that which the courts tossed because of the overreach). Online registration is one of the recommendations in the report.
The report does note that some states, includng Minnesota, underwent major efforts to implement a federal law designed to assist military and overseas voters:
Many states undertook great efforts and expended significant resources to implement he MOVE Act in time for the 2010 election. In some cases, states had to make relatively minor legislative changes to comply with the MOVE Act. In other cases, states had to move their primary schedule and re-write much of their election code. The states that undertook these efforts should be commended. . . .
While there are a number of factors that prevent military voters from returning their ballots (e.g., it may be received too late to be returned), the data indicates that many of the ballots may not have reached their intended recipients. This conclusion is evidenced, in part, by the high rate of return in states that eliminated absentee ballot requests from previous election cycles. For example, the rate of return in Minnesota and Nevada ranged from 66 percent to 74 percent, whereas the rate of return in the other 22 states was 30 percent. As more states implement the one election cycle requirement, we anticipate that the absentee ballot return rate will continue to improve.
In the Minnesota House, Steve Simon, the endorsed DFL candidate for Secretary of State, was the author of HF2552, the companion to the Senate bill that moved Minnesota's primary from September to August; Simon also authored this session's bill that created online legislation.
Looking through Severson's career as a legislator, we have found a number of veteran and military-friendly bills, as might be expected from a proud veteran, but none that specifically dealt with making it easier for active military members to vote. His zeal about this issue appears to be late blooming.
Minnesota can and should do better--and there's a clear choice among candidates for one who has actually herded cats on certain reforms that are meant to address these issues. Tha individual is not Dan Severson--and this leads to his more dubious claim about when Minnesota counts military ballots.
Peculiar claim in his petition
As the screenshot above verifies, Severson's petition (or at least the online version of it) states:
In the 2010 election in Minnesota less than 5% of Minnesota’s active duty military members votes were counted. Current state policy is to count those votes last after all others. We believe that our active duty military vote should be counted first and in its entirety. If you agree, please sign the petition below. This petition will be delivered on 9/11 to Mark Ritchie, current Minnesota Secretary of State and Rep. Steve Simon, Chair of the Minnesota House of Representatives Elections Committee.
Here, we see the claim about 5% narrowed to Minnesota, but it's misleading, since the claim count be read as "military votes cast," rather than "actual ballots cast by eligible active duty military voters."
And then there's that bit: "Current state policy is to count those votes last after all others."
Since votes in Minnesota are tallied at the county level, Bluestem called our local auditor's office here in Chippewa County, Minnesota, to learn if indeed the absentee ballots sent in by military voters were counted last, and if a state policy mandated that military votes were to be counted after all others.
The helpful staff member conferred with others in the office and returned to the phone to say that military absentee ballots were mixed in with other absentee ballots, then counted at the same time as the rest of the absentee ballots.
An email request to the Office of the Secretary of State confirmed the local auditor's office's account.
In a separate email, the office's Director of Communications Nathan Bowie explained the process of counting absentee ballots:
Absentee ballot process:
When voters submit an absentee ballot, the counties review their absentee ballot materials to check if the materials were filled out correctly so the ballot can be accepted. Those ballots that are accepted are set aside to be counted on Election Day. Counties do not separate military/overseas ballots from “regular” absentee ballots — these ballots are all in the same “accepted” set of ballots.
Voters whose absentee materials are rejected are notified of the problem so the voter can correct and resubmit their ballot.
Seven days before Election Day, counties can begin feeding in absentee ballots into the ballot box, but these votes aren’t counted until Election Day.
Also of note:
At our site, mnvotes.org, there are helpful tools for our military and overseas voters, including a tool for these voters to easily request their absentee ballot. In this tool, the voter can request to have their ballot materials emailed to them, to eliminate mailings. In this case, the voter prints out the materials that were emailed from the county, fills them out, and mails them back.
You can learn more about military/overseas voting process here: http://www.sos.state.mn.us/index.aspx?page=889
From our perspective, it looks as if Severson is using an emotional appeal to patriotism to invent a new status for military voters. It sounds wonderful to count military ballots first, though each county would have to keep them separate from other absentee ballots. Perhaps those folks signing the petition can pitch in some coin to create that new system for all 87 counties.
It sounds wonderful, and patriotic and good, but counting military ballots first on election day would do nothing to addresss the systemic issues that lead to low election participation rates by members of the military. Propaganda designed to trigger our patriotic impulses while shushing critical thinking is one thing (how could anyone be against counting a military ballot first?), while actually working on the hard process of achieving bipartisan agreement on election law is hard work.
Images: Screenshots described in the post.
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