IG: Drop Mandatory Base Voter Assistance Offices

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Building voter assistance offices on every stateside and overseas base is a waste of money and will not yield an increase in military voting as Congress had hoped, the Defense Department's  Inspector General said in a report released Sept. 4.

IG officials recommended the Pentagon ask Congress to waive the 2009 mandate that every stateside and overseas base have a voter assistance office to ensure troops can register to vote and get absentee ballots.

The 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act was a congressional response to a weak military voter turnout for the 2008 elections. The military vote was about 53 percent, as compared to 64 percent among the general population.

But the IG and Federal Voter Assistance Program managers said a voter assistance office at every base may not be the best way to get out the military vote – either in turnout or cost-effectiveness.

The IG team who investigated the voter assistance offices said when they tried to call many of the offices spread out across the military, many of the listed phone numbers didn't work. Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Federal Voter Assistance Program, dismissed this saying the contact numbers have changed.

The biggest population segment in the military is 18-to-25 year olds, which also has the lowest voting turnout, the IG noted. Putting a voter assistance office on all geographically separated bases is probably not the most effective way to reach that group, according to the report.

"Given the time required for personnel to leave their units and travel to a [voter assistance office], use of [these offices] will most likely never reach the level of use envisioned by the MOVE Act," the IG report read.

Then there is the cost of setting up an office, which the IG and program officials estimate will run at least $15 million to $20 million annually. The Pentagon has thus far not budgeted for these offices, according to the report.

For those reasons, the IG and the Pentagon voting officials recommended Congress waive the mandate for the voter assistance offices, and leave it to the service branch leadership to determine the best locations for them.

The emphasis should be to shift to "more intuitive, easy-to-use web-based tools" that would cost less and improve the quality of voter assistance, officials said.

"We use Twitter. We use Facebook," said Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Federal Voter Assistance Program, "especially so that we can reach out to the largest military population … those 18-to24-or-25-year-olds."

Mitchell said on Wednesday her agency is establishing their social media presence and regularly sends out "email blasts" to every servicemember to remind them to register and advice how.

Mitchell said her office and the IG agree that "the most important thing we can do is find the most effective way to maintain assistance for all of our absentee voters.

"We are absolutely committed to continue working with all of the stakeholders, including the Congress, to make sure that voting assistance remains the best it's ever been."

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