Requests from military voters for absentee ballots have dropped significantly since 2008, according to newly released statistics, prompting claims that the Department of Defense is dragging its feet in enacting a law meant to boost military voting.
The drop in the battleground states of Virginia and Ohio is among the most pronounced. According to statistics released Monday by The Military Voter Protection Project, the number of absentee ballot requests by both military members and other overseas voters in the two states has dropped 70 percent since 2008.
Virginia had nearly 42,000 total requests in 2008, compared with a little more than 12,000 this year, according to the MVP Project. Ohio had more than 32,000 in 2008, compared with 9,700 this year. The number of military voters specifically -- as opposed to military and overseas voters -- was not broken down in the latest set of statistics, but military-only numbers released by the MVP Project in August documented a similar drop-off in applications.
At the time, military ballot requests in Virginia were down 92 percent. Several other states showed a precipitous drop since 2008, including Alabama, North Carolina and Florida.
"We need to make military voting the highest priority. ... and we need to do it now," MVP Project founder Eric Eversole told Fox News.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the numbers mark a "serious failure" by the Pentagon.
"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," he said in a statement.
A spokeswoman with the Defense Department, though, stressed that total numbers will not be available until after the election. Further, Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde noted that 2012 is much different than 2008, in that the 2008 cycle had contested primaries for both Democrats and Republicans. This year, only the Republicans had a contested primary -- and the Defense Department has adamantly defended its voter outreach to date.
The department claims that compared with 2004, the last time an incumbent president was running, the number of absentee ballots downloaded from the central military website is similar.
"We are in complete compliance with the law," Hull-Ryde said in a statement. "(The Federal Voting Assistance Program) strives to ensure that every absent military and overseas citizen voter has the tools and resources to receive, cast and return an absentee ballot and have it counted -- regardless of who they vote for."
Absentee ballot voting is critical for members of the military, many of them stationed overseas or away from their home state. The MVP Project estimates that roughly two-thirds of servicemembers need to vote absentee -- though as of late August, the group reported "an incredibly small percentage" of them was requesting the ballots. Across Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, the group reported that less than 2 percent of eligible voters had requested ballots as of August.
"The absentee ballot data for 2012 paints a bleak picture for military voters," an earlier MVP Project report said.
The updated figures on military and overseas absentee ballot requests, based on statistics from the states, were released by the MVP Project on Monday. In most cases, absentee ballots have already been sent out to military voters, as required by federal law.
The MVP Project claims the Department of Defense has fallen short, though, in implementing the 2009 law known as the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE). The law required absentee ballots be sent out no later than 45 days before an election -- but also required "voting assistance offices" be set up on most military installations.
The MVP Project claims that in some cases, these offices were not only set up after a November 2010 deadline passed, but were also located in areas not associated with the check-in process -- meaning servicemembers could be less likely to visit them.
"This data should sound an immediate warning bell for military voters," the group's August study said.
However, Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program, said at a briefing last month that voting assistance "has never been better." The program currently has more than 220 voting assistance offices.
Mitchell acknowledged another recent report from the Department of Defense inspector general's office that found the voter assistance offices were not all established "as intended." The report cited a lack of funds, and also suggested that voter assistance information could more effectively be targeted through social media and advertising.
But Mitchell explained that the department has set up an online tool to help walk servicemembers through the process, and is now using social media like Twitter and Facebook to reach the military population.
"We use email blasts starting last January to every member with a dot-mil email address to remind them how they can register to vote and that it's time to vote," Mitchell said, adding they have also set up a call center that operates five days a week and provides information on how to file an absentee ballot.
"I strongly believe that voting assistance is the best that it has ever been," Mitchell said.