By Tom Philpott
There’s fresh data to indicate far fewer military personnel and dependents are using absentee ballots to vote this year than did in 2008.
But beware of politicians or pundits who rush to label such data as proof that military voters are being “disenfranchised,” voting experts caution.
Through Oct. 26, 846,442 military personnel, voting-age dependents and U.S. civilians living overseas had downloaded the Federal Post-Card Application from the website run by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. That’s down 21 percent from 2008.
By the same date in 2008, at least 1,082,540 military and overseas voters had downloaded the post card, which they can use to register to vote and request an absentee ballot.
Pamela Mitchell, acting director of the voting program, which administers federal tasks of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, gave several possible reasons for the drop. One is that, with the Iraq war over, fewer military are deployed, including Guard and Reserve members.
Also, in 2008 both parties held contested presidential primaries, not just Republicans, as was true this year. Finally, Mitchell said, there are more options than the program for voters to get postcard applications, including voting assistance officers and election websites run by states.
For all of that, a drop of 236,000 is large enough also to indicate a general decline in voter interest. Mitchell conceded that point, too.
“We encourage voting but we recognize that, at the end of the day, it’s a personal choice … What we want to make sure of is that, for those who want to execute that right, we provide every assistance possible,” Mitchell said.
This year the voting assistance program is “in the best place it has ever been” to help, she said. “We have our Web portal, which is information rich, providing links to all 55 states and territories. We have online wizards that walk you through the process of registering, requesting a ballot or using a back-up ballot,” Mitchell said. “We have a call center (800-438-VOTE) that operates weekdays from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific time, and we offer live chat assistance in the same hours.”
In addition, there are more than 13,000 unit voting assistance officers and, at all 221 military installations worldwide, new voter assistance offices.
Also by Election Day, 2 million military members with “.mil” addresses will have received nine “email blast” reminders on how to register and vote. So folks who want to vote should know how, Mitchell said.
Still, controversy over absentee voting persists. This year it swirls around the new installation voting offices required by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009.
As reported here in August, an advocacy group, the Military Voter Protection Project, claimed that delays setting up and properly using these offices were to blame for an alarming drop in the number of early requests for absentee ballots. Authored by project executive director Eric Eversole, the report compared preliminary data from select states with military absentee ballots sent out in 2008. It got a lot of news coverage.
By October, however, Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and a scholar on voting, said the project report was “poorly sourced. … It has no credibility and should be treated as such.”
Bob Carey, director of voting assistance program from 2009 through May this year, also hit back. He told reporter Bryant Jordan of Military.com that Eversole failed to consider that many thousands of absentee ballots in 2008 had been sent automatically to military voters at addresses used in the 2006 election. After states complained that automatic mailings to target a mobile military population were wasteful, the military voting act of 2009 ended them.
Interviewed for this column, Carey went farther to attack the project for blaming a drop in absentee ballot requests on tardiness in establishing voting assistance offices on base, as the voting act required.
“Those two issues are totally separate from each other and totally irrelevant to each other,” Carey told me. “The reason there’s a lower number of ballots being transmitted is exclusively the issue of no longer automatically transmitting ballots (to addresses) from prior election cycles.”
Carey summed up the report’s flawed reasoning this way:
“There were no installation voting assistance offices in 2008. There are in 2012. But voter numbers have gone down in 2012, and it’s because the services are not doing the installation voting assistance offices well enough. You can see the fundamental problem with the logic here,” he said.
Carey refused to assign motive for the report. He said Eversole, a Navy Reserve lawyer, has been a strong advocate for military voters. He worked absentee voter issues for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during his presidential bid in 2008. Eversole also won a landmark legal decision at a state level on behalf of military voters, Carey said.
The Military Voter Protection Project is funded by the Legacy Foundation, an Iowa-based “educational” organization, begun in 2009, to “advance individual liberty, free enterprise and limited and accountable government” through “independent, non-partisan research on public policy matters and initiatives,” its website explains. Eversole said the project is nonpartisan but does not disclose its donors.
The Legacy Foundation website says it does not support or endorse candidates. News reports say it has backed right-wing causes, including Arizona’s controversial immigration law. It also brought a lawsuit last year against a Democratic-led congressional redistricting plan in Maryland.
Bruce Rastetter, a wealthy GOP donor and former business partner of the billionaire Koch brothers, who back conservative causes and candidates, is a former chairman of foundation, the Baltimore Sun reported last year.
Eversole told me the project has “worked at all times to make this a non-partisan issue. I have repeatedly made clear that neither President (Barack) Obama nor his administration is to blame” for a decline in absentee votes.
He said the voting assistance program “failed to create a more systematic basis for allowing military voters to register and request ballots” by not using base voting offices as part of the check in and check out process, in the same way many states use vehicle registration offices to accommodate voter registration.
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