FREDERICKSBURG — A 92 percent drop in absentee-ballot requests by military personnel in Virginia is raising concerns that the Pentagon is failing to carry out a federal voting law.
With only 1,746 military voters in Virginia requesting absentee ballots so far this year — out of 126,251 service members in the state —the Military Voter Protection Project says the system has broken down.
And it’s not just in the Old Dominion. MVPP Executive Director Eric Eversole reports significant declines in absentee-ballot requests by service members across the nation.
Compiling data from Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Alaska, Colorado and Nevada, Eversole’s organization found that military families have requested 55,510 absentee ballots so far this year. That’s a sharp decline from the 166,252 sought in those states in 2008.
The dropoff is ironic, considering that Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) in 2009 to help highly transient military voters obtain absentee ballots wherever they are stationed.
“The fact is that an incredibly small percentage of military voters are requesting absentee ballots for the 2012 election, even though a majority of military members — roughly two-thirds — will need to vote by absentee ballot,” Eversole said.
Eversole acknowledged that personal responsibility figures into the equation. And updated figures as of Sept. 2 indicate a slight narrowing as Election Day draws closer. MVP’s latest data for Virginia, for example, shows a 70 percent dropoff in military absentee ballots.
Another veterans group, the Military Defense Committee, disputes the MVP methodology and claims that absentee ballot requests are, in fact, on track to approach the 2008 levels.
But Eversole maintains that service members aren’t getting the same voter-assistance and access that civilians receive through motor-vehicle offices and social-service agencies.
“We’re not seeing the same level of emphasis [on military voting] that we saw four years ago,” Eversole told Virginia Watchdog.
The former Navy JAG Corps officer blames “the federal bureaucracy and a little bit of stubbornness by the Department of Defense. The buck stops at the Federal Voting Assistance Program.”
FVAP’s director, who reports to the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, left at the end of May, and the agency leadership has been in transition.
Pam Mitchell, FVAP’s acting director, acknowledged findings in a recent DOD Inspector General report that indicated difficulties service members had in reaching voting offices at military installations.
“Over the last six months, we spent a lot of time reaching out to every single one of the 221 installation voting offices,” Mitchell said. “We now believe that voting assistance for our absentee voters is absolutely the best that it’s ever been.”
She said “between now and the election,” FVAP officials will make weekly calls to each of the voter assistance offices “to ensure they are accurately able to capture changes that may occur.”
Don Palmer, secretary of Virginia’s State Board of Elections, said, “It is immensely challenging to deal with DOD on the [absentee ballot] issue.”
Nevertheless, Palmer said he remains “hopeful that the numbers will turn around.”
“The Commonwealth has created a position to focus specifically on this issue and will increase its outreach program to inform military voters that the month of September is the most opportune time to successfully prepare to vote in the presidential election,” Palmer told Virginia Watchdog in an email statement.
Eversole praised Virginia’s SBE for making itself a single point of contact for military voters, unlike other states where service personnel must navigate through myriad local election boards.
But he places the absentee-ballot issue squarely on the feds.
“The MOVE Act was designed to create a more systematic, automatic procedure to update [service personnel’s] voter information. The military would provide servicemen a form for voter registration and absentee-ballot requests upon arrival at a new duty station. This isn’t happening,” Eversole said.
He cited Air Force statistics from the second quarter of 2011 showing that the branch provided voter service at only seven of its 22 installations voting assistance offices. In the third quarter, the Air Force said only five service members received assistance from the offices.
“The Air Force is not alone,” Eversole said. “All of the branches provided very little voter-registration assistance.”
Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokeswoman, disputes that assertion.
“We regularly collaborate with the services and states to enhance our efforts. In fact, FVAP facilitated Virginia’s research into a new online ballot delivery system to transmit blank ballots to military and overseas voters more quickly.”
Hull-Ryde told Virginia Watchdog that “more than 341,000 federal post card applications [for voter registrations and absentee ballots] have been downloaded from the FVAP website.”
For the same period in 2008, some 566,000 applications were downloaded.
But Hull-Ryde cautioned, “Please keep in mind that there is a sitting president this year with an uncontested primary, unlike 2008.”
“In January, June and September of this year, FVAP sent e-mails to every service member with a “.mil” e-mail address, reminding them to register to vote,” she reported. “Additionally, 30 days prior to the November election, those service members will receive another reminder message.”
Robert Alt, director of the rule of law program at the conservative Heritage Foundation, calls the situation “a national disgrace.”
He pointed to a 2011 study of 24 states alleging that a paltry 4.6 percent of military absentee ballots that were requested and returned were actually counted in 2010.
“The military is one of the most underrepresented groups in the country. It doesn’t seem like correcting this problem has been a priority for this administration,” Alt said.
While it’s true that more military personnel have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2008, Heritage troop-strength analyst Jim Carafano said the vast majority remain stationed at bases outside where they’re registered to vote — still necessitating absentee ballots.
Alt, who was embedded with troops as an Iraq war correspondent in 2004, called the military voting system “broken.”
He cited the example of New York, which mailed absentee ballots to troops just 22 days before the 2010 election. Even though federal law requires a 45-day window, the state received no sanction from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Many [troops] believe their votes won’t count,” Alt said. “They’re given such short shrift that they consider it a waste of time.”
Adding to the problem, the Pentagon acknowledged last month that it has established voter-assistance offices at only half of its overseas military bases, even though Congress mandated them at all facilities.
Eversole doesn’t blame politics, but, rather, “a lot of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.”
“At the end of the day they just don’t want to do it,” he said.