The Pentagon insists that its voter registration and absentee balloting efforts have been extraordinary, even unprecedented.
So what’s the truth? We many never know until after November 6, but the stakes for both candidates are obvious. The military vote – if collected and counted – will be decidedly anti-Obama. A just-announced Military Times poll of military members gives Mitt Romney a 66 to 26 percent lead over the president. The Times survey is in line with an earlier Rasmussen poll that showed a 59 to 35 percent lead for Romney among voters with military service.
More to the point, 57 percent of respondents to the Times survey – including members at overseas and U.S. installations – said they planned – or at least hoped – to vote absentee.
To this point, the data suggest a historically low military voter turnout. For example, one report indicated Virginia military absentee ballot requests are down 92 percent compared to 2008. In Ohio, another pivotal swing state, only 9,700 absentee ballots had been requested as of late September compared to more than 32,000 in 2008. According to the Military Voter Protection Project, military voter activity in eight states with significant military presence was down by similar amounts.
Some argue that diminished voter enthusiasm is the reason. Defense officials point out that overseas deployments, particularly in the war zone, are down significantly. Others claim the Pentagon has not done enough to encourage and facilitate the voting process.
The finger pointing began in earnest last month when the Defense Department Inspector General reported that the Pentagon was not complying with a 2009 law designed to make voting easier for troops deployed overseas. The IG said only about half of overseas locations had functioning voter assistance offices as directed by the law.
Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, quickly responded that IG inspectors may have had trouble reaching voting assistance offices because “in a military environment, times change.” She cited “personnel movements and joint basing” as additional factors.
Mitchell stressed that the military voting effort was “the best it has ever been” with a host of digital measures and a five-day-a-week call center to address issues worldwide.
Republicans in Congress did not buy the explanation. Six senators, including Saxby Chambliss from Georgia, issued a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta charging that the “price of the failure to follow the law will likely be paid this November by military service members and their families whose voting rights were to have been safeguarded by this provision.”
The senators noted that “many of the on-base voter assistance offices that do exist are grossly inadequate and at least half are either closed or completely unstaffed.”
At Robins Air Force Base, there are 97 voter assistance officers, according to base spokesperson Christine Miner.
She said the base voter assistance office has a dedicated phone line, mailbox and is open for appointments 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Miner indicated a number of initiatives have been conducted to publicize voter registration and absentee balloting including posters, briefings at commanders’ calls, a screen pop up when base computer users log in and base-wide e-mails.
As for response, Miner had anecdotal information but no concrete evidence that local military members were taking steps to register and vote.
“The voter assistance office has received many e-mails and phone calls,” she reported. “The first data call installation wide will be collected (this) week.”
September 27 through October 4 was designated “absentee voting week” by the Pentagon. The local response was “good,” Robins officials said.
Mitchell, conducting a telephone news conference from the Pentagon last week, said, “It’s important to note that military voters and their families can certainly participate in this election. It’s not too late to vote.”
Still, there are skeptics, including U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who compared the Pentagon’s absentee balloting effort to an earlier campaign to survey the effects of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the now scuttled ban on open service by gays and lesbians.
“It seems to me that the military made sure they got the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ surveys to every member of the military,” Scott is quoted by conservative media. “But when it comes to military voting, it seems that we’re not able to get the absentee ballots to our soldiers. There seems to be a different standard when it comes to voting versus a survey that DoD or the administration actually wanted a response to.”