Experts: Ballot Requests From Overseas Troops Lag


NAPLES, Italy -- It's easier than ever for overseas servicemembers to vote this election, but that doesn't mean they will.

Based on ballot requests so far, researchers and political analysts are predicting an underwhelming number of ballots from military members and dependents stationed on foreign bases in November compared to 2008, despite a series of new voter-friendly laws in recent years aimed at simplifying the ballot request process.

"Our best estimate is that there are low (turnout) rates, any way you slice the data," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University politics professor who tracks voting trends. "Compared to a domestic civilian, absentee voting is an extra hoop."

With less than a month until the Nov. 6 election, Air Force Airman Zack Thomas hadn't requested a ballot or researched the candidates. This year marks the first time the 20-year-old California voter stationed in Naples is eligible to vote.

"I'm just late in the game," Thomas said. "I'm probably not going to vote if I don't see a difference between the candidates."

Federal and state lawmakers have worked to simplify the overseas voting process in recent years. The federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act in 2009 mandated electronic ballots be available to military and overseas voters at least 45 days before an election.

The District of Columbia and at least 47 states later passed similar laws, according to the Pew Center on the States, which has been monitoring laws aimed at protecting the voting rights of military and overseas voters.

McDonald, the George Mason University election researcher, said ballot requests in recent weeks suggest military voting might decline in a handful of states, but increase in one or two. In all, the data suggest the overseas military vote will likely continue to trail turnout among most other demographic groups this year despite gains in overseas voter access, McDonald said.

David Becker, director of Pew's election initiatives, said it is impossible to tell how many overseas military members will return ballots this year.

However, "even if turnout is low, it doesn't mean that the new tools and procedures put into place weren't successful," Becker said.

In the 2008 election, military voters were almost twice as likely to face registration problems compared with other voters, Pew researchers found. And nearly 28 percent of military and overseas ballots in 2008 were rejected or returned as undeliverable or lost, according to the Congressional Research Service. Many were rejected because they arrived after the election.

Roughly 67 percent of overseas servicemembers returned a ballot in 2008, compared with 74 percent for overseas civilians, according to the Defense Department. In all, 17 percent of registered active duty military said they requested an absentee ballot but did not receive it in 2008.

Marine Maj. Cory Martin said he recently received his ballot from Florida within two weeks of requesting it. Martin, who voted from overseas in several previous elections, said he never encountered any problems when requesting and receiving a ballot. As of last week, he hadn't mailed in his vote from Naples.

"It's plenty of time," he said.

The Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program launched a voter education campaign this year using emails, social media outreach and paid advertisements in several newspapers targeting defense employees.

"Participation rates alone are poor indicators of the effectiveness of voting assistance given that interest in voting fluctuates with each election," Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, told members of the House Committee on Armed Services last month. "This is especially true for the military population, which is younger and more male … than the general civilian population."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a recent video message imploring military members and dependents to vote.

"Please exercise the very privilege that you're willing to fight and die for in order to protect," he said.

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