The Justice Department recently filed a series of arguments in an Illinois court case brought by Republicans challenging the state’s practice of counting ballots received by election authorities up to two weeks after Election Day.
This practice doesn’t mean votes cast after Election Day are counted. Rather, it helps ensure that voters whose ballots might be affected by long postal delivery times still see their votes tabulated. Only ballots completed by Election Day are counted; local authorities presumably use postage dates to confirm the timing. Illinois voters can’t simply drop off their ballots or show up at a polling place for two weeks after other Americans nationwide stop voting. “Permitting the counting of otherwise valid ballots cast by election day even though they are received thereafter does not violate federal statutes setting the day for federal elections,” the Justice Department court filing says. “This practice not only complies with federal law but can be vital in ensuring that military and overseas voters are able to exercise their right to vote.”
The reference to federal law seems particularly pointed since the Republicans challenging the ballot-counting standards cited federal law. Specifically, they pointed to the portion regarding the timing of Election Day, making the filing from the Justice Department a direct repudiation.
“Illinois’s vote-by-mail ballot receipt deadline helps to ensure that otherwise valid ballots cast by the state’s military and overseas voters, among other citizens, on or before election day are received in time to be counted, notwithstanding the logistical challenges that can often result from transporting ballots from overseas or distant locations across the country,” the Justice Department’s legal brief also says. As summarized by the voting rights organization Democracy Docket, the Justice Department also noted how Illinois law doesn’t let state voters cast their ballots after Election Day is over. It’s a procedural mechanism accommodating for real-world issues. In another recent case where the Justice Department filed a collection of arguments known as a statement of interest, the department’s side prevailed.
A Wisconsin federal judge demanded that disabled voters in the state be allowed to obtain assistance in returning their absentee ballots to election authorities. (Further procedural specifications are or will become available elsewhere.) The ruling followed a ruling by the Wisconsin state Supreme Court that insisted only individual voters can return their absentee ballots in person to officials. If non-disabled voters can freely return their ballots in person or via the mail, then why shouldn’t both options be freely available to disabled voters?
The judge handling the case pointed to the Voting Rights Act in outlining his decision. “Voters shouldn’t have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law,” the judge said. “But that is the position that plaintiffs find themselves in, and that is in part because defendants have refused to provide needed clarification. If defendants cannot or will not give plaintiffs assurances that their right to vote will be protected, this court must do so. The Voting Rights Act is clear: disabled voters who need assistance in returning an absentee ballot are entitled to ask a person of their choosing for that assistance.”