POLITICS

Study questions Pentagon effort on absentee ballots

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Photo - A study by the Military Voting Project concludes that fewer members of the U.S. military are requesting absentee ballots for voting in the 2012 election. Defense Department officials dispute the study's conclusion. (AP Photo)
A study by the Military Voting Project concludes that fewer members of the U.S. military are requesting absentee ballots for voting in the 2012 election. Defense Department officials dispute the study's conclusion. (AP Photo)

DENVER -- Is the military AWOL in early voting, or is the Pentagon trying to silence the votes of military men and women in Colorado and other states?

That's the question a growing number of officials are asking in light of a new Military Voter Protection Project report that found absentee ballot requests by the military have dropped up to 70 percent in states nationwide -- including swing states like Colorado -- since the 2008 presidential election.

Quite simply, what this means is we are facing another election where service members are being disenfranchised. - Eric Eversole, Military Voting Project executive director.

As of Aug. 27, only 6 percent -- or 2,986 -- of Colorado's 47,867 military personnel had requested absentee ballots, according to the MVP report. That's a 41 percent drop from the 5,104 military personnel who requested absentee ballots during the entire presidential election of 2008, according to the report.

Eric Eversole, founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based MVP, described in a statement the number of absentee ballots requested as "shockingly low," adding it indicates "many military members will have their voices silenced on Election Day."

"Quite simply, what this means is we are facing another election where service members are being disenfranchised," Eversole told ColoradoWatchdog.com. "Our men and women in uniform are really at the front lines of defending freedom, they have an important voice in America and they need to be heard."

The situation in Colorado mirrors a national trend. As of Sept. 22, requests for absentee ballots were down 70 percent in Virginia and Ohio, 59 percent in North Carolina, 52 percent in Alaska and 46 percent in Florida, according to the MVP report.

But Defense Department spokeswoman Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde disputed the report's numbers, noting it compares requests for absentee ballots during the entire 2008 presidential election to requests for absentee ballots as of Sept. 22 in some states and as of Aug. 27 in Colorado.

"First, let me emphatically state that we are in complete compliance with the law (the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act)," Hull-Ryde told ColoradoWatchdog.com. "More than 200 Installation Voter Assistance Offices exist around the globe. In addition, unit voting assistance officers are available to every unit, in every service, all over the world.

"Second, military voters -- and their families -- can participate in this election. Registration and return-ballot deadlines vary by state. We encourage military voters to register and request their ballots as soon as possible, but it's not too late."

Colorado Secretary of State spokesman Rich Coolidge also questioned the MVP report, noting his office sent out more than 12,000 absentee ballots to overseas voters on Sept. 22.

That's on pace to total the roughly 16,000 absentee ballots sent by the end of the 2008 presidential election, he said. This includes requests from all overseas voters, including military personnel, those working and studying abroad and embassy workers. Coolidge said Thursday his office had mailed 4,735 absentee ballots to overseas military voters. That compares to 4,188 absentee ballots mailed to overseas military voters in the last presidential election.

"Secretary of State Scott Gessler spent the summer visiting the various bases around the state, asking for ways we can improve what we are doing in Colorado," Coolidge said. "For the most part, Colorado leads the nation in providing services to overseas voters. This year, we have an online ballot delivery system that all our counties are using."

The MVP report found that military families in Colorado, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Alaska and Nevada have requested 55,510 absentee ballots this year. That's a big drop from the 166,252 sought in those states by Election Day in 2008, according to the report.

"To most people, the decline raises plenty of questions," wrote Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, in an email to supporters. "Given all that's happened in the last four years, our troops should be some of the most motivated voters in the country. After all, no one has borne the brunt of this administration's radical agenda like the U.S. military.

David Becker, director of election initiatives at the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States, said the drop in requests detailed in the MVP report may involve an oversight regarding federal postcard applications in the MOVE Act, which amended the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986.

The federal postcard application was established to let military and overseas civilians use a single postcard to register to vote and apply for absentee ballots, Becker said. But that requirement was omitted from the MOVE Act.

"This is the first presidential election where a federal postcard application may not trigger an automatic ballot request as they have in past elections," Becker said. "It's something we are in favor of correcting to ensure people who are serving overseas don't have to continually request absentee ballots if they are still eligible to receive them."

The MVP report follows the release of a recent report by the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General that found half of U.S. military bases lack the voter assistance facilities required by the MOVE Act.

"Today we're learning our men and women in uniform may be even more disenfranchised than they were before sweeping reforms were signed into law two years ago to make it easier for them to exercise their right to vote," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a statement. "This is an unacceptable failure by Pentagon leaders to comply with the law and ensure our service members and their families are able to exercise one of the most fundamental rights for which they sacrifice every day."

Joe Davis, director of public affairs at the Washington, D. C. office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the VFW was disappointed by findings in the DOD Inspector General report.

"To DOD, a rack of voter pamphlets in the orderly room or at the family services office constitutes 'dedicated space' in a military mindset that's more focused on war or training for war than something that only occurs federally every two years," David said in an email to ColoradoWatchdog.com.

"This is not an excuse, but it also doesn't validate any allegation of military voter suppression. As patriotic Americans, we want all eligible voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote, but then again, you can't force someone to do something that is 100 percent voluntary."

In a telephone news conference earlier this week, the acting director of the DOD's Federal Voting Assistance Program, Pamela Mitchell, encouraged military personnel and overseas civilians to visit www.FVAP.gov to register and request their absentee ballots.

Military personnel also can request absentee ballots at www.heroesvote.org and mail them to their local election office, Eversole said.

"The deadlines are going to be quickly upon us," Eversole said. "Colorado has a deadline of Oct. 9 for registration. There is still time, though, and we need to make sure our service members are able to participate in this election."

Troy Anderson is a reporter for Watchdog.org., which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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