By Tom Philpott Military Update
Absentee ballot requests from military members and spouses are alarmingly low this election year, a voter advocacy group contends.
It blames the Department of Defense for foot-dragging on absentee voter reforms that were enacted after the last presidential election.
A four-page report, “Military Voting Update: A Bleak Picture in 2012,” builds its worrisome conclusions on what arguably are some thin reeds of data on early ballot requests across nine states, all of which have large military populations and can track voter requests for absentee ballots.
They are Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana and Nevada. Two states with the largest military populations, California and Texas, lack recent data on ballot requests.
Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project, is comfortable sounding this alarm to urge the military to improve support of absentee voters in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Disappointment with military participation in the 2008 election, which totaled 53 percent versus 64 percent for the general electorate, spurred Congress to strengthen military and overseas voting protections in 2009 with passage of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.
It requires states to establish more standard procedures to accommodate military and overseas voters. Voter registration requests and absentee ballot applications now can be emailed. States are required to transmit absentee ballots no later than 45 days before an election, which means by Sept. 22 this year.
The act also requires the services to set up voting assistance offices on every military base to help military members and spouses to register, update voter registration and request absentee ballots.
That isn’t happening, the report says. Not only are military people not being offered voting assistance each time they report to a new duty station, but goals that military voter assistance be comparable to what civilians receive at state driver license branches and social service offices also has been ignored, the report contends.
As proof it cites performance data filed by voting assistance offices last year and posted on the Federal Voting Assistance Program website.
“For example,” the report says, “in the second quarter of 2011, the Air Force reported it provided assistance at only seven of 22 installation voting assistance offices. In its third quarter report, the Air Force indicated only five service members received assistance from these offices.”
Data on yearly totals on voter assistance by the services, posted on the same program website from which the military voter project pulled quirky Air Force data, show that the service helped 104,000 voters last year. Army voter assistance offices said they helped 61,348, Marine Corps offices helped 13,671 and the Navy offices helped fewer than 4000 voters.
The voter project expects a “remarkable decline” in military absentee ballots this election season by comparing total ballots requested to date by military voters across the nine states with total absentee ballots requested in 2008. The disparity, which is as wide as 49,000 ballots in Florida, for example, “will be difficult to make up” in what time remains, the report concludes.
Eversole, who wrote the report, conceded he couldn’t make an exact comparison of total ballot requests two months before the 2008 election and ballot requests today. But Eversole said he is in close contact with state boards of election and officials share his concern that the size of the surge needed just to match 2008 absentee voting levels “is staggering.”
Data obtained Wednesday from the Virginia Board of Elections shows that in 2008 more than 36,000 military voters requested absentee ballots. So far this year fewer than 2000 military voters have requested ballots.
Don Palmer, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said he doesn’t challenge critics who say the Department of Defense and the services have “work to do” to implement mandated reforms.
“I am a reservist in the Navy. I’ve been doing it for 22 years. And obviously (voter support) isn’t their first priority,” Palmer said. “We struggle sometimes to have (the Defense Department) show the same urgency because they have other missions. I understand that.”
Terry Wagoner, absentee voter coordinator for Virginia’s board of elections, said it is “still very early” to try to assess the level of military participation. The number of ballot requests will surge, she said.
“Where I would start to become very concerned would be at that 45-day mark,” if numbers aren’t up sharply by then, she said. On Aug. 24, Wagoner was set to host an afternoon of training on absentee voting procedures for voter assistance officers from Virginia’s nine military bases.
Wagoner views Eversole, she said, as a partner in turning out the military vote, and she understands why his report sounds so gloomy.
“Eric’s job is to paint a bleak picture so he can go out there and make it better. I support him wholeheartedly,” Wagoner said. “But I refuse to let statistics stop me from doing everything I can” to help absentee voters.
Wagoner expects soon to be fielding 200 queries a day, via phone and email. Completed ballots will still have to be mailed. But with registration and ballot distribution now possible via email, she said, wait times should drop significantly and word should spread that the process has improved.
“The disappointment here is we’re going to have difficulty meeting 2008 numbers,” Eversole said, “which Congress said was the basis for sweeping reform. So are we really shooting for status quo?”
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