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Military Troops Request Fewer Absentee Ballots


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Compared with 2008, far fewer American troops are asking for absentee ballots this fall. A new report blames the Pentagon for failing to provide enough help. The Department of Defense says the figures do not reflect the efforts it's making. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Eric Eversole of the Military Voter Protection Project says if you compare requests for absentee ballots in 2008 and 2012, there's a clear trend.

ERIC EVERSOLE: Florida and Ohio, both of those have seen a 70 percent decrease from the total number of absentee ballots requested in 2008.

ABRAMSON: Eversole says there are similar declines in other key states - North Carolina and Virginia. The Military Voter Protection Project released a report this week charging military voter participation for this year will almost certainly fall well short of the last presidential election. That's disappointing, Eversole says, because in 2009 Congress ordered the Pentagon to open up voter assistance offices on nearly every military base. He alleges that the Pentagon's efforts are inadequate and led directly to this decline.

EVERSOLE: One, you didn't implement the federal law that Congress told you to implement. And two, you're not getting the same level of emphasis that you have in past elections.

ABRAMSON: A recent report from the Pentagon's own inspector general found other problems with voter outreach efforts by the military. But the Pentagon bristles at suggestions that it is ignoring the will of Congress. At a briefing earlier this week, spokesman George Little said it's misleading to compare 2008 numbers with today's. Many military voters, he says, are now back home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

GEORGE LITTLE: Just as an example, the Virginia National Guard, as I understand it, has all units home for the first time in 10 years.

ABRAMSON: So they may not be voting absentee any longer. And there are other factors. Some point to the candidacy of a war hero, John McCain, as a reason for more military votes in 2008. Or participation could have been higher because of Barack Obama's historic run. The Pentagon does not track how service members vote.

Eric Eversole, who put this report together, worked in the Bush administration's Justice Department. He insists this is a non-partisan effort and he's not accusing the administration of trying to skew the election.

EVERSOLE: I see absolutely no signs of any partisan activities as a result of this issue.

ABRAMSON: Meanwhile, the Defense Department says it has bent over backwards to set up voter offices, websites and social media tools to help service members get ballots and vote. Erin Conaton, Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, says the Pentagon own numbers show the outreach effort has been a big hit.

ERIN CONATON: Six hundred thousand folks have downloaded absentee voter registration materials from our website.

ABRAMSON: But that measures how many people asked for help. The Pentagon says it can't know how many requested ballots. That's the job of state and county election officials. And Michael McDonald, who teaches at George Mason University, says they are often slow in reporting absentee ballot requests.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: Where election officials are actively updating their data bases, and so they can be tardy in providing that information to the states.

ABRAMSON: So ballots might've been requested, but the data hasn't been reported. McDonald says voters can still request and cast absentee ballots, even by email, so there's plenty of time for the number of military voters to rise.

Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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