Group warns of 'bleak' military voter participation despite Pentagon efforts

They fight for our freedom on the front lines, but members of our military could have less of an impact at the ballot box this year.

Estimates say that the number of troops who will end up voting in the November could be down by more than a third.

"We could see an election where turnout is down 25 or 35 percent," predicts Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project, which brands this year’s predicted military voter participation levels as "bleak."

In the crucial swing state of Ohio, the group’s report found that only 3.3 percent of the eligible military voters have requested ballots as of Aug. 21.

North Carolina had even less, just 1.7 percent, Virginia a scant 1.4 percent. And the key state of Florida reported a rate of 15.7 percent.

"What could happen is that we once again could face an election, as we have had in past years, that our men and women in uniform aren't able to have their voices heard on election day, and it’s too bad," Eversole laments. He calls for a greater effort to get the military vote out.

"Our service members have so much on the line. They are not only overseas fighting for our rights but in some ways fighting for their own rights," he said.

Eversole says in the 2010 election there were "widespread failures" in getting absentee ballots into the hands of deployed troops, citing 14 states that had at least one county that did not distribute the ballots on time.

While troops register to vote with their home states, Congress in 2009 passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act to help smooth the process.

Defense Department figures show that while 77 percent of active duty military members were registered to vote in 2010, 29 percent reported that they never received the absentee ballots that they had requested, which was an increase from 16 percent in 2008, before the law meant to protect the military vote was even enacted.

"It was supposed to make it easier for service members to register, request an absentee ballot and ultimately participate," Eversole notes. "With these low numbers, it raises serious questions ... whether that important federal law was actually implemented."

Pentagon officials who are in charge of military voting insist that the law is being carried out and that they are doing everything they can to get the word out to vote.

"Voting assistance for our absentee military and overseas citizen voters has never been better," touts Pam Mitchell, the acting director of the Department of Defense's Federal Voting Assistance Program.

"I say it because of all the things that we have put in place by way of outreach and tools, to help them register, obtain a ballot and exercise their vote," he said.

She says that the Pentagon's voting programs are spreading the word in a variety of ways, including their website, Twitter and Facebook, as well as the Department of Defense's 221 voter assistance offices around the globe that are tasked with helping troops with the voting process. There is even a call center that can assist with questions.

"We are committed to evaluating all of the tools in our arsenal," Mitchell insists. “We are absolutely committed to working with all the stakeholders, including the Congress, to make sure that voting assistance remains the best it has ever been.”

But others are not as impressed with the increased efforts.

“Now, the DOD plans to rely on social media to get the job done,” observes Jan Tyler, a former Denver elections commissioner and Pentagon voter program analyst.

She says that “the practical and obvious answer is to have registration and absentee ballot request forms at intake, when the members of the services fill out paperwork and are processed. It’s the cheapest way to do it." When applying for social services, she said, "you are offered a voter registration form at every single federal office. It would be inconsistent if the Department of Defense doesn’t do that.”

Mitchell also notes that ultimately, the responsibility to vote rests with the individual.

"At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is make sure that they have everything they need, again, to exercise that right to vote," she said. "It is a personal responsibility to actually execute that, so we don't believe that, for example, in this point in time, that voter registration is an accurate way to depict whether or not voter assistance is effective."

Mitchell, who spoke to the media from the Pentagon media briefing room, says that she spent  "25 years in the Army, and I voted absentee, and I can tell you that I only wish that when I was in uniform, I had access to the tools and resources that are available to our men and women today."

The fear is that too many of those who are eligible to vote will not, or will not be able to do so. Local elections boards, by law, have to send out absentee ballots to overseas troops 45 days before the election. That gives them less than two weeks to do so.

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