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Sunday, May 4, 1997

Bill would deny some military votes in local elections

By RICHARD HORN

Abilene Reporter-News

A legislative "sneak attack" last week would sharply restrict voting rights for Texas armed services personnel stationed elsewhere, military advocates warn.

The Texas House voted Thursday along bitter party lines to prevent military personnel from voting in local elections unless they prove they're county residents.

As it is now, they can be sent a full federal, state and local ballot if they registered to vote while once stationed at a Texas military base and intend to return to that county.

Nine military voters from around the world cast ballots in Saturday's Abilene City Council election; they may or may not have lived here for years. In last fall's general election, more than 1,300 military personnel mailed in absentee ballots to Taylor County.

If the new proposal is passed by the Texas Senate and signed into law, those voters could cast ballots only in a presidential election unless they prove to local officials they are eligible county voters with local addresses.

For personnel ordered around the world on short notice that's not as easy as civilians may think, critics charged.

"They couldn't even vote for the congressman who might send them off to war," complained Bill McLemore, president of the Texas Association of County Veterans Services.

"Veterans groups are just livid about this amendment," he said. "We're going to have to kill that sucker in the Senate."

Dan Garcia, Taylor County's veterans service officer, said active duty personnel overseas would not even find out about the law change until it's too late.

"They're defending our country and here we are back home trying to take away some of their rights while they're defending ours," said Garcia whose 20 years in the military including helping servicemen and servicewomen cast votes from Southeast Asia. "This is just horrendous."

Texas Secretary of State Tony Garza agrees. He said supporters of the change don't realize how difficult it is for military voters overseas to maintain their registration because of tight deadlines and spotty mail service.

"It is a fundamental principle of Texas election law that all legal voters receive and vote a full ballot," Garza said. "There is only the illusion of equal treatment here. In reality, this poses additional obstacles to the overseas military voter."

'MAKES IT EASIER'

But the amendment sponsor, Democratic Rep. Hugo Berlanga of Corpus Christi, a U.S. Army veteran, dismisses the talk as overreaction. The intent of his proposal, he said, is to make military voting easier and prevent any military votes in the future from being questioned.

"I will never allow anyone to question a military ballot cast by hardworking military personnel in this state," Berlanga said. "This makes it easier for service members to take part in the election process, to apply for a federal ballot by mail and to vote by fax or electronic transmission.

"It will also make sure that military voters who want to participate in local elections are registered to vote in the county of their residence, just as every other Texas voter is right now."

But military lobbyists say there's far more than that intention involved. Democrats, McLemore said, are angry about a South Texas election defeat where he said there is not any clear evidence of fraud by military voters.

Some 800 military votes helped elect a Republican sheriff and county commissioner in Val Verde County, normally a Democratic stronghold. Those elections were challenged in court, with Democrats claiming the military votes in the local races should not be counted because the voters do not actually live in the county.

The elected GOP county commissioner resigned his office after he was identified as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan while he was stationed in Germany.

Berlanga insisted last week his amendment is not just a reaction to the Val Verde County controversy. In fact, he said, he is concerned that the Val Verde military voters were being subjected to questions about who they voted for and why they voted in that county. This would prevent any accusations of fraud, he said.

Texas Democratic Chairman Bill White also defends the amendment.

"It really just simplifies voting for military personnel," he said. "All a member of the military has to do to maintain his or her voter registration in Texas is contact the Secretary of State to register and continue to vote in their home county."

McLemore calls that argument "bunk." Military personnel are being given the "out of sight, out of mind" treatment, he said.

"They're scattered all over the world," he said. "If you're sitting in Bosnia right now, probably the last thing on your mind is voting. And probably the voting officer would walk up to you, if he gets out there at all, at about the last minute. Then it becomes important to you. But under this law it would be too late."

STATE INCOME TAX

That's why Texas law has allowed servicemen and servicewoman to vote without being formerly registered as long as they properly request a Federal Postcard Application ballot.

"If you were back home, safe and sound, you simply could drive to the courthouse and get it done," he said. "But you can't drive from Bosnia or Haiti or Korea or anywhere else in this world to get that accomplished."

McLemore acknowledged that some military voters may claim Texas as a residence simply because it is one of the few states without an income tax.

"Might be true, but what's wrong with that?" he said "You've got the right to pursue happiness, and if pursuing the place where you feel you'd get to keep more of what you earn is your understanding of pursuit of happiness, that's you're right."

Garcia said one of his duties while stationed in Vietnam was helping soldiers vote, and he said it was important to many of them. Garcia himself voted in local elections in Nueces County.

"My mom and dad were sending me the local newspaper and I was keeping abreast of what was happening," he said. "A lot of people on active duty do this, even if they don't have an address or live in base housing. But there's a very short window of opportunity our people have when they're overseas."

Taylor County Elections Administrator Pauline Pitman said by far the largest number of military absentee ballots are requested during presidential years.

Ballot requests include local addresses, though elections officials do not verify them. They are treated as sworn statements, as is information on all other voter registration applications, Pitman said.

Veterans' lobbyists thought that had killed the proposed change. But Berlanga won its passage as an amendment to a non-controversial bill that clarified military procedures and expanded voting rights, even allowing military ballots to be counted 10 days after election day.

'RIPE FOR FRAUD'

The amendment passed on a strict party line vote. State Rep. Bob Hunter, R-Abilene, said opponents will work to make sure it is removed from the bill's Senate version.

"We have military people all over the world who still plan to return to Abilene or Dallas or wherever they entered the service," Hunter said. "The reason they want to vote in local elections is because they want that community to be the kind of place they'd like to return to. Military personnel should have the right to vote wherever they choose."

The controversy won't end, however. The Val Verde County dispute remains and may need to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue is how many of the military voters have a bona fide intent to return to the county.

Supporters of the Berlanga amendment argue the law is so lax it is ripe for fraud.

"You had people who hadn't been anywhere near Del Rio for 20 years skewing the election process," Berlanga said.

But McLemore said he believes the court will uphold the votes. Regardless, he said, it's wrong to rush to change the law, dramatically overturning the way military votes have been handled for years.

"They haven't let the courts decide if something was wrong and yet they want to have a legislative solution." he said.

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