In the hotly contested swing state of Virginia, where a small number of votes could tip the presidential election, requests for absentee ballots from military members are down sharply from 2008. The trend is raising concerns that despite a new law aimed at getting out the military vote, many of those serving will not be involved in choosing the next commander in chief. The Military Voter Protection Project released figures in August indicating steep declines in absentee ballot requests in five swing states, with Virginia lagging the farthest behind. Numbers in Virginia have rebounded somewhat since then – perhaps a result of a big final push by state, Pentagon and military officials to get service members registered before the Oct. 15 deadline. Still, State Board of Elections figures show a stark drop from 2008, with just 9,852 military voter absentee ballots requested this year, compared with 20,738 in 2008.
What’s behind the drop is unclear. The military voter project says the Pentagon has failed in its obligation to comprehensively inform military voters of options. “I really think it’s bureaucratic inertia,” Executive Director Eric Eversole said. “The Pentagon does a lot of things really well by keeping us safe, but when it comes to their nonwarfighting missions, some of their efforts just fall short, and I think that’s what happened here.” But officials at the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which answers to the Pentagon and is charged with making voting easier and more accessible for military and overseas voters, said the group was misinterpreting the data.
Pam Mitchell, acting director of the government program, pointed out that there are far fewer service members overseas this year than there were in 2008, when hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. She also noted that it’s a different kind of election than 2008, with an incumbent up for re-election this year in the White House. And unlike in 2008, when tens of thousands of automatic absentee ballots were sent out to voters who’d requested them in 2006, this year, only current requests were valid.