Defense & National Security

Is the Obama administration suppressing the military vote?

Is the Obama administration suppressing the military vote?

Voter assistance programs for the military – specifically targeted for improvement with $75 million after low military turnout in 2008 – have been left to languish by the Obama administration and the result may be depressed military turnout. Again.

The situation is especially alarming for the Mitt Romney campaign, because polls have consistently shown that Romney’s support from military voters and their families exceeds that of Barack Obama’s support by double digits.

In other words, the less the administration puts a priority on military voter outreach, the more the president is helped in the election.

The situation is reaching a crisis point, as members of the military face deadlines for absentee ballots in some states in just a matter of days. So far, military ballot requests are at a dismal low.

In the pivotal swing state of Ohio, roughly 9,700 absentee ballots had been requested by military and overseas voters as of Sept. 22, compared with well over 32,000 in 2008 total ballots cast for those groups. In Virginia, another swing state with a significant military presence, the nearly 12,300 military and overseas ballots requested so far are something less than 30 percent of the more than 41,700 absentee military and overseas cast four years ago.

A survey released late last month by the Military Voter Protection Project showed that in eight military-dense states, early figures indicated the same trend. Ballot requests were down across the board by big margins.

“I think we’re going to see the lowest participation rates in more than a decade by military service members and their spouses,” said project CEO Eric Eversole. “We’re pushing as hard as we can to reach out to service members while there’s still time.”

These figures are particularly disconcerting in that the 2008 election already represented a low turnout in military voting, with about 54 percent of service members casting a ballot, compared with a 64 percent overall voter turnout.

Military voter outreach falls short

The problem was so acute that the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act was enacted in 2009 as part of the defense authorization bill to counter the apparent barriers to military voting. It required blank absentee ballots to be sent to service members who requested them at least 45 days before an election and called for the creation of dedicated voting assistance offices on every non-deployed military installation.

But while these offices were dutifully set up at many installations, early numbers suggest they are ineffective, and a recent Inspector General investigation found that representatives in those offices are, up to half the time, unreachable or unresponsive.

Of 229 installation voting assistance offices officials tried to contact by telephone, or email, more than 49 percent could not be reached at all. Furthermore, surveys conducted by the Defense department after the 2010 election, which showed the offices were effective in helping troops to vote, were found to be misleading because the surveys had a low response rate and respondents were largely self-selecting.

In a Sept. 13 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel to discuss the Inspector General report, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) suggested the problem lay with Obama administration priorities.

“It seems to me that the DoD made sure that they got the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell surveys (determining the effects of a repeal) to every member of the military, to every spouse, to everybody that they were supposed to,” he said. “But when it comes to military voting, it seems that we’re not able to get the absentee ballots to our soldiers…it seems to me that there’s a different standard there when it comes to voting versus a survey that the DoD or the administration actually wanted a response to.”

Military vote leans Romney

The military vote, which has historically bent conservative, appears to be leaning even further to the right this election cycle. While Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the support of military voters by 10 percentage points in 2008, a Rasmussen poll conducted in July found that Romney leads Obama 59 percent to 35 percent for Obama among likely voters with military service. More recently, several Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist polls showed Romney with a lead of between 12 percentage points and 20 percentage points ahead of the president among veterans in the swing states of Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.

Anecdotal evidence shows that, whatever the reason, the message that troops should take time to exercise their constitutional right to vote is not always promoted or given priority among the fighting forces.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), who also sat in on the recent panel on military voting, said his own experience as a senior officer in the U.S. Army reserves made him doubtful of how much attention voting assistance was given.

“I can say as someone who was deployed in 2008, the extent of my command emphasis was a notice that was posted on the unit bulletin board about where the voting office was and who the contact was,” he said.

A Marine infantry sergeant stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., who asked not to be identified by name, said that he had received no information from his unit about voting. “The military never talks about voting, period,” he said. “It has not been something they’ve really talked about for most of us. I haven’t voted on anything since I joined.”

The local base paper did include a recent short story discussing the importance of voting and how to get help, but for those who work in the infantry, and, like this sergeant, are deployed or recently returned from a deployment, these messages may not be enough.
With little time left and roughly 480,000 absentee military votes (the number cast in 2008) at stake, Eversole said his organization’s immediate priority is to spread the word that troops should exercise their right to vote.

“From our organization’s perspective we’re going to continue pushing the best we can to get the word out,” he said. “Most Americans have family members serving. If they do, then they really need to emphasize to them that it’s not too late. It’s really important to reach out to them and let them know.”

In the long term, he said the laws in place to assist the troops were strong; they just needed to be enforced. “Our DoD needs to comply with federal law,” he said.

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