Election 1944: Soldier voter gets benefit of doubt in Allegheny (10-11-44)

The Pittsburgh Press (October 11, 1944)


Soldier voter gets benefit of doubt here

Election board takes liberal attitude
By Kermit McFarland

Allegheny County election officials, in handling military ballots for the country’s voters in the Armed Forces, have taken literally the admonition of the Pennsylvania Military Ballot Act to “liberally construe” the provisions of the law.

They are bending over backwards to give the soldier-voter, as Election Director David Olbum expresses it, “the benefit of the doubt.”

In following this policy, the Elections Department is proceeding on the theory that it was the intention of the law to give every voter in the military and naval forces a vote if:

  • His intention is plain.
  • There is no evidence of fraud.
  • The voter will be 21 or more on Nov. 8.

Up to board

Mr. Olbum said he could see no other reasons for disallowing any military ballot, although the final decisions will be determined in each case by the Board of County Commissioners, who will sit as a special election board beginning Nov. 22 to count military ballots.

State election officials have predicted that wherever the civilian vote results in a close election, there will be substantial challenges to soldier votes based on technicalities. Election authorities here are not anticipation any such trouble.

The Elections Department is not even waiting until the count begin to start giving the soldier-voters the “benefit of the doubt.”

Minor oversights seen

So far, the department has received 1,122 from voters in the military and naval forces who did not comply strictly with the technicalities outlined in the Military Ballot Act. They sent in ballots without the required affidavits, without taking the affidavits before commissioned officers as provided by the law or without signing their own signatures. Other minor oversights on the part of military voters have also been detected by the Elections Department.

In each case, the ballot has been returned to the voter the same day it was received with a letter explaining his error and asking him to correct it at once and return it.

Some undelivered

In addition, out of the 99,381 ballots sent to the Armed Forces by the County Elections Department, 970 have come back undelivered.

In these cases, the Elections Department has sent letters to the next of kin asking for new addresses. In 503 cases, the families have supplied these addresses and the ballots were forwarded immediately.

The Department has even passed out second ballots in some bases, as the War Ballot Commission in New York has done.

This has happened in cases where a soldier home from overseas service, has appeared personally at the Elections Department and asked for a ballot. When a checkup disclosed that a ballot had already been sent him at Guam, the South Pacific, India or some other place so far away that the chances of the ballot catching up with him before election was remote, the Department has handed over a new one.

Any chance for double voting in such cases is eliminated by the fact that the voter must sign his name on the sealed envelope containing the ballot and a complete check of these envelopes will be made before the count of military ballots begins.

While the Elections Department has been returning ballots on which the affidavits were not sworn before a commissioned officer, Mr. Olbum said he thought there was good legal basis for counting these ballots if the oath was administration by an Army sergeant or a Navy petty officer.

Laws differ

The federal law – as well as the New York and Wisconsin laws – permits taking affidavits before sergeants and petty officers. Since this would create confusion, Mr. Olbum said he believed the courts would take it into account, despite the fact that the Pennsylvania law specifically requires an affidavit before a commissioned officer.

Ballot forms for military use officially approved by the State Elections Department carry an instruction to the voter to “ask for a new ballot” if he makes a mistake. The rules sent out by the same bureau, however, merely instruct the vote to make a neat erasure and forward the same ballot, since he obviously cannot “ask for a new ballot.”

The County Elections Department left this instruction off the ballots printed here.

When it comes to counting military ballots, Mr. Olbum says he thinks every ballot on which the voter’s intention is clear should be counted, “even if it’s marked with a burnt match.”

The Elections Director said:

We don’t know under what conditions a soldier may be compelled to mark his ballot. You can’t pay strict attention to all the rules and regulations when you are trying to mark the ballot in a foxhole.

The law itself contemplates a similar policy, for, unlike the law governing civilian voters, it permits the military voter to mark his ballot with “pencil, crayon, indelible pencil or ink.” Civilian voters are restricted to pencil or indelible pencil.

Incidentally, the Elections Department has sent 75 ballots to Pittsburgh soldiers now prisoners of war in Axis internment camps. The addresses were furnished by the families. None so far has been returned.

About 75 ballots have been returned by the Army and Navy undelivered and marked “deceased.”