The number of U.S. military personnel registering for absentee voting is down sharply since the 2008 election, and with registration deadlines approaching fast, advocates say there is a real danger that many of the nation’s men and women in uniform may not have a chance to vote at all.
In Virginia, for instance, only 5,263 ballots had been requested by military voters as of Sept. 22, compared with 20,738 in 2008, according to state figures compiled by the Military Voter Protection Project.
“The people who are on the front lines defending freedom are in danger of having their voices silenced,” project founder Eric Eversole said.
He laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Pentagon, saying “it’s down to bureaucratic inertia. There’s a lack of any strong structure that encourages service members to vote.
“These numbers show that military members throughout the force are still struggling to register and request an absentee ballot.”
Mr. Eversole noted that the first state deadlines for absentee voting registration are next week.
In Ohio and Florida, Tuesday is the deadline for registration. In Virginia, the deadlines are Oct. 15 for registration and Oct. 30 for requesting an absentee ballot.
However, the limitations of the military postal system mean that ballots from overseas, especially in war zones, often have to be mailed weeks in advance of Election Day.
Pentagon officials defended their efforts to help military personnel register and vote, as mandated by federal law. The efforts are vital because even troops stationed in the United States often vote absentee.
Military voting is complicated because states have different deadlines, procedures and services, creating a confusing patchwork of rules that any military voter has to negotiate.
“We have an aggressive, robust outreach effort going on right now to reach service members and educate them about how to exercise their right to vote,” said Navy Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
“There are multiple resources available to help them,” Cmdr. Hull-Ryde said, including specially trained voting assistance officers in every unit and a special Pentagon website and call center where personnel can get advice on how to register in their home states.
“There is still time for military voters to participate in this election,” she said. “It is critical that [service members] check the registration deadline for their state.”
Mr. Eversole expressed disbelief, and noted: “The deadlines are quickly approaching, and the numbers are still well, well below where they were in the last cycle.”
“When do they think these requests are going to come in?” he said.
The Pentagon says the lower level of absentee registrations reflects the smaller number of U.S. troops deployed overseas compared with four years ago. Officials say they have established more than 200 special offices on bases where troops can get help.
These offices and the specially trained voting assistance officers in every unit provided advice and assistance to more than 500,000 service members in the first six months of the year, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
Mr. Little took “strong issue” with the Military Voter Protection Project’s numbers.
“The data in that report, we believe, is quite old and doesn’t take into effect recent developments that we’ve undertaken,” he said.
Mr. Eversole defended his numbers, which he said he first compiled nationwide at the end of August and has updated for several states since.
“The newest data continues to show a significant drop-off in the number of ballots requested,” he said.
For example, during the entire 2008 election, Ohio’s military and other absentee voters requested 32,334 ballots. But only 9,707 — less than a third — had done so for the 2012 election as of Sept. 22.
The deadline in Ohio to request an absentee ballot is Nov. 3.
Part of the problem in assessing the competing claims is that it is hard to perform an “apples to apples” comparison.
As Election Day draws near, many states do not have the time or resources to parse out military voters from other absentee and overseas registrants.
Moreover, in 2008, there was no incumbent, which tends to front-load registrations as both parties’ supporters register early to vote in the primaries.
Added Mr. Little: “It’s important to remember that the number of deployed service members, especially in the war zones, has declined significantly” since 2008.
The Virginia National Guard, for instance, has all of its members home for the first time in 10 years this year.
“That assertion fails to recognize that most military members, even when they’re in the United States, have to vote absentee,” Mr. Eversole said.
He accused the military of “trying to misdirect attention from the real issue, which is they are not in compliance with federal law.”
The 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act ordered the military to set up a special voting-assistance office at every U.S. base around the world, to make sure troops can negotiate the patchwork of state registration and absentee voting requirements, and get their ballots mailed in time.
Last month, the Pentagon inspector general released a report saying investigators had been unable to contact voting assistance offices at more than half of the U.S. military’s 229 bases around the globe. Officials said they were using outdated contact information.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta “believes, along with the rest of the department’s leaders, that it is vitally important for our service members and their families who have made great sacrifices in defense of this democracy to have their voice heard in this election,” Mr. Little said this week.
Some supporters of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have accused the Obama administration of trying to stymie military voting, which usually is assessed to be more conservative than the general population.
Mr. Eversole dismissed that suggestion.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “This issue long predates the current administration,” and has been characteristic of the Pentagon under control of both parties.
Mr. Eversole noted that the turnout among military voters in 2008 was 30 percent, less than half of the turnout in the population as a whole, but he declined to speculate about whether that number would be lower this year.
“I’m working every day to prove myself wrong, getting these guys to register and vote,” he said. “My hope is that we can right the ship, but we’re running out of time.”