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Wisconsin denied military ballot law waiver

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MADISON, Wis. — Massachusetts and Delaware were granted waivers Friday to ignore a new federal law meant to protect the voting rights of deployed troops and other Americans overseas, while Wisconsin was denied in its request.

They were among nine states, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that sought exemptions to the federal law. Information about the other requests was not immediately released by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Not getting the waiver calls into question how Wisconsin will comply with deadlines that election officials have said can't be met.

Wisconsin Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney said the state was notified Friday morning that it had not received the waiver and had already spoken with the U.S. Department of Justice — charged with enforcing the defense department's decision — about what will happen next.

State election director Kevin Kennedy said before the decision was handed down that denial would not change how the state holds its Sept. 14 primary, but would require the DOJ to outline what steps the state needs to take to satisfy concerns.

Not getting the waiver means the state won't be able to meet the deadline under the law to send military and overseas voters a ballot 45 days before the Nov. 2 election. The deadline for getting the ballots to those voters is Sept. 18, but it will take the state at least two weeks to finalize the primary vote and set the general election ballot.

Not being able to meet the 45-day requirement under the law isn't that big of an issue because all states can e-mail ballots to voters, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists overseas and military voters.

The 45-day requirement was the worst-case scenario for how long it would take a ballot to be sent and returned by mail, she said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Defense, which is notifying states that requested a waiver, said a statement on the status of the other states would be released later Friday.

Others that requested a waiver were Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

Elections officials in Delaware and Massachusetts said they were granted the waiver.

Minnesota and Vermont responded to the law by moving their Sept. 14 primaries back to August. Maryland initially asked for a waiver for its Sept. 14 primary, but then determined it could get the ballots to military and overseas voters before the election.

Of those that requested a waiver, three have already had their primaries — Colorado on Aug. 10, Washington on Aug. 17 and Alaska on Aug. 24. Six of them are on Sept. 14 — Delaware, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. The Virgin Islands' primary is Sept. 11 and Hawaii's is Sept. 18.

Advocates who pushed for the Military and Overseas Voter Act said more time is needed to send ballots overseas and get them returned and counted on time. The potential delays and problems are most extreme for members of the military as the mail gets sent from port to port, base to base.

Last year the Pew Center on the States identified problems with the turnaround of military and overseas ballots in 25 states. The report found that it took states anywhere from 21 to 60 days before an election to mail ballots to overseas voters and sometimes they didn't come back until it was too late to be counted.

Bob Carey, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said shortly after the law passed in October that it would affect 1.4 million military members and their 400,000 voting-age dependents. Many more American civilians living overseas are also affected.

In Wisconsin, which has a 10-day post-election grace period and extends other options to military voters, there has been little appetite for holding the primary earlier than the traditional September time.

Instead, the state sought the waiver because election officials said Wisconsin complies with the intent of the law. Kennedy wrote in the waiver request that Wisconsin sends official state absentee ballots to military and overseas voters no later than 90 days before an election and that the ballot, along with an e-mail of the official ballot when it's ready and the 10-day grace period, have proven successful.

In the 2008 general election, of the roughly 10,000 ballots sent to members of the military and dependents claiming Wisconsin as their home state, 28 percent were not returned. Of that ones that were, only 4 percent were not counted because of errors.