Military voters still face trouble at polls

U.S. service members stationed overseas in Afghanistan and elsewhere may miss their opportunity to vote in the upcoming presidential election, despite the Pentagon's efforts to ensure their ballots are counted.

ADVERTISEMENT
American troops and their families stationed abroad are guaranteed access to the polls this November under mandates included in the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act.

The legislation, passed by Congress in 2009, established so-called voter assistance offices at all U.S. installations across the globe, to help U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have their say in all federal elections.

However, congressional Republicans have hammered the Pentagon for not following through on the requirements outlined in the 2009 legislation, leaving thousands of military personnel unable to cast their vote.

The military vote tends to sway Republican, and with recent polls showing President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat, strong voter turnout by American service members could be the difference between a second term for Obama or a Romney White House.

But in September, an investigation by the Pentagon's Inspector General found that numerous attempts to reach out to voter assistance offices on military bases overseas went unheeded.

Further, the IG's office found that a number of overseas military installations had no offices on base at all.

“The price of DoD’s 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," Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate MORE (R-Tex.) said in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta regarding IG's findings.

Those U.S. military personnel who do request an absentee ballot are also running into hurdles getting those votes back to the United States, Cornyn alleged this week.

"Many overseas service members are forward-deployed in units with high operational tempos and in austere environments, both of which make it harder for them to hand-carry their completed ballots to a post office or postal clerk by the deadline," Cornyn said in a second letter sent to DOD on Friday.

According to the MOVE act, it is the responsibility of the Pentagon — not individual soldiers — to ensure those completed ballots make their way stateside, according to Cornyn.

"Under no circumstances should DoD be shifting its obligations onto the shoulders of overseas service members, many of which are serving in harm’s way," the Texas Republican wrote.

In response, Panetta ordered all the service chiefs to provide a comprehensive report on the status of all 221 voter assistance offices across the military.

"We must do all we can to ensure that service members know the steps necessary to vote," Panetta wrote in a memorandum sent out to the services and Joint Staff on Tuesday.

The service reports, submitted to the Pentagon on Friday, are under review by department officials, Federal Voting Assistance Program spokeswoman Katherine Nigro told The Hill.

Despite those efforts, GOP concerns over military access to the voting booth still remain, according to one Senate Republican aide.

"Given that [the DOD] IG noted widespread problems, our concerns still stand" in spite of the Pentagon's efforts, the aide told The Hill on Friday.

"We would like for them to implement the MOVE Act," the aide added. "That would help mitigate [GOP] concerns.

The shortfalls within the military voting process are already having an impact on anticipated military voter turnout in November, according to one Washington-based advocacy group.

Absentee ballot requests by U.S. military personnel have dropped dramatically this year, compared to the number of requests made by American service members during the 2008 presidential election, according to a report by the nonprofit Military Voter Protection Project.

The biggest drops in ballot requests were found in several key swing states, according to the group.

Ballot requests in Florida dropped by a total of 47 percent compared to four years ago, the report states. In Ohio and Virginia, those requests fell off by 70 percent in 2012, according to the group's analysis.

“It doesn’t take much to figure out that it will be difficult to meet the 2008 participation levels, even if every single ballot is returned and counted,” said Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project.