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Wis. election officials mum on military voting law

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MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin election officials refused to say publicly Monday how the state will deal with the rejection of its request to ignore a federal law requiring ballots be sent to members of the military and other overseas voters by Sept. 18.

That is only four days after Wisconsin's Sept. 14 primary, a deadline that election officials argued couldn't be met because it takes 14 days to finalize the vote and prepare the general election ballot.

But the state's request for a waiver from the federal law was denied by the Department of Defense on Friday, as were requests made in three other states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board discussed the issue at its Monday meeting, but board director Kevin Kennedy refused to say in public what will happen next. Kennedy said options being discussed with the U.S. Department of Justice should only be talked about in closed session because there was potential for the state to be sued.

The Justice Department said Friday that it would work with states whose waivers were rejected, but, if states refused to do that, legal action would be pursued.

The biggest concern was ensuring that everything is being done to get ballots to members of the military and overseas voters from Wisconsin in a timely manner, Kennedy said.

Wisconsin voters on Nov. 2 will elect a new governor and decide whether to re-elect U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat facing stiff competition from a Republican millionaire political newcomer Ron Johnson. All other constitutional officers are being elected, the makeup of the Legislature will be set, and all eight members of Congress are also up, along with a host of other local issues.

Moving Wisconsin's primary — just two weeks away — would require a law change and wasn't an option ever taken seriously by the board or the Legislature. Instead, the state sought the waiver.

The Defense Department said it rejected the waiver because Wisconsin's final general election ballot isn't available to voters until between 29 and 39 days before the election, not enough time to meet the 45-day requirement under the law.

Wisconsin had argued that it was meeting the spirit of the law because blank ballots are mailed out 90 days in advance, final ballots can be e-mailed once they're ready, and ballots post-marked by election day can be counted if received up to 10 days late.

Kennedy also cited Wisconsin's history of counting the majority of ballots that military and overseas voters return. In the 2008 general election, of the roughly 10,000 ballots sent to members of the military and overseas voters 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.

The Defense Department ignored all those factors and instead looked at the single fact that Wisconsin couldn't mail the final ballot 45 days before the election.

Kennedy said he thought the reasoning was flawed, but "we have to accept this."