House passes bill allowing military to cast special runoff ballot

By Bob Johnson
Published March 16th 2006 in Associated Press

The Alabama House approved a bill Thursday that will allow military personnel overseas to cast a ballot for the June 27 party runoffs at the same time they vote in the June 6 primary elections - a change lawmakers hope will resolve a lawsuit filed against the state by the U.S. Justice Department.

The House voted 101-1 to approve the legislation sponsored by Rep. Lesley Vance, D-Phenix City. Vance's bill would have originally moved the date of the runoffs to July 18, but the House approved an amendment by Majority Leader Rep. Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, to instead allow soldiers to use the special runoff ballots.

But the issue is still not settled. A Senate committee Thursday approved a bill to change the runoff date and some senators said the final version of the bill still must be worked out.

The Justice Department's lawsuit claims there is not enough time between the June 6 party primaries and the June 27 runoffs for military personnel overseas, particularly those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, to receive and return absentee ballots.

Attorney General Troy King and Secretary of State Nancy Worley had recommended the bill to delay the date of the runoff to resolve the problem.

Guin said the special runoff ballots, to be sent only to service members overseas, would list the names of all candidates in races where there are more than two candidates and there is a possibility there will be a runoff. The service members would be asked to rank those candidates from favorite to least favorite and return the runoff ballot with the primary ballot, Guin said.

He said if a voter's first choice made the runoff, that candidate would get the vote. If the first choice did not make the runoff, the next highest choice in the runoff would get the vote.

Guin said a similar system is used for runoff elections in Arkansas, with the apparent blessings of the Justice Department.

Several House members said extending the length of the runoff would place a hardship on candidates, who would have to continue raising money for the six weeks of the runoff campaign.

"I've always thought a runoff should be the next Tuesday after the election," said Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville.

The Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee voted 6-0 for the bill moving the runoff to July, although some senators said they voted for the bill just to keep a vehicle alive to try to resolve the issue.

Attorney General Troy King and Worley told committee members the Help America Vote Act gives people who cast provisional ballots seven days to provide identification that would allow their ballots to be counted. That pushes the official certification of the Alabama primary to June 22, which makes it too late to print runoff ballots and get them to troops overseas.

"If you leave the law intact, we cannot comply and will probably have federal intervention," King told the committee.

Committee Chairman Wendell Mitchell, who is sponsoring the Senate bill and is a former law school dean, said the House version raises equal protection issues. He said most voters would be able to study the runoff debate between candidates before they cast runoff ballots, but the troops overseas wouldn't.

The House version also disenfranchises overseas military who didn't vote in the primary but want to vote in the runoff, he said.

Worley said the ballots under the House plan would be difficult to count in crowded races and could lead to election disputes.