Auditor admonished for late military ballot mailing

Upon notification of a possible lawsuit by the federal government, all of the state’s counties met a hastily-imposed early deadline to send out military absentee ballots in October. Except one county.

State Elections Director Nick Handy said this week that Island County did not mail out about 1,000 of its general election military ballots in time to meet a federally-imposed deadline of Oct. 8. State law had set the deadline on Oct. 15 last year. However, Handy said since a presidential election was in the offering this year, federal law supersedes state law. Military ballots are ballots sent to both U.S. military personnel and Americans living overseas who are registered in the state.

Handy said all of the counties were notified by an e-mail labeled “urgent” about the earlier deadline.

But Ann LaCour, Island County’s chief deputy auditor, said only Suzanne Sinclair, the county’s auditor, received the “urgent” e-mail. In addition, she said she believes the e-mail was not sent until Oct. 8 and since Sinclair was out of the office part of that day no one else checked her e-mail. LaCour also said the state never followed up to find out whether the e-mail was received. So county employees followed state law.

Sinclair said she did not read the e-mail until the evening of Oct. 8. Since Oct. 11 was Columbus Day, a federal holiday, the ballots could not be mailed until Oct. 12.

Handy said the state notified the Department of Justice about the county’s failure to issue the military ballots on time. The department did not fine Island County, he said.

The state first received notification of the earlier deadline on Oct. 5. The federal government then rejected a proposed schedule presented by the counties on Nov. 7 that would have mailed two-thirds of the county’s overseas ballots on Oct. 8 and the rest on Oct. 15. That prompted Handy to send out the “urgent” e-mail.

Since some counties were unable to prepare complete general election ballots in time, they were allowed to send out ballots that listed the presidential and vice presidential candidates along with write-in space for all other federal candidates.

Handy said Washington state was not alone in receiving pressure from the federal government to change the deadline date for military ballots.

“There has been a heightened awareness for all states to get their ballots out early,” he said.

Although the date change was a nationwide effort, Washington was probably the most affected since it has the nation’s latest primary. Most primaries are held in June and July, but Washington state does not hold its until September, Handy said. With votes not certified until late September, general election ballots must then be quickly printed with the candidates names and parties in time for the general election, he said.

Handy said the close election results in last year’s gubernatorial race shows how dangerous that short of a turnaround can be. If any election results were close enough in a primary race, there won’t be enough time for a recount, he said.

“Its really not an adequate time to process everything if you’re in a recount environment,” Handy said. “But we’ve been lucky so far.”

Handy said there’s been efforts in the state to convince the Legislature to change the law and move the date of the primary back. In fact, he said he hopes controversy raised from the governor’s race will show the need to change the primary date.

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