Military families are a key voting bloc in battleground Virginia, but one group fears its voice will be under-represented on Election Day.
Requests for absentee ballots from members of the armed services, their spouses and dependents could be down sharply from 2008, according to statistics from the Military Voter Protection Project, which is seeking to boost voter participation among troops.
The blame for the anemic numbers rests with the Defense Department, which has been slow to enact reforms that make it easier to register, said Eric Eversole, founder and executive director of MVP.
"I see a significant amount of foot-dragging," Eversole said Tuesday.
The Pentagon takes "strong issue" with the MVP report, spokesman George Little said Tuesday, saying its figures are dated and doesn't take into account recent outreach efforts.
As of late August, 1,746 absentee ballot requests came from military families in Virginia, the group said. For all of 2008, the number was 20,738.
Eversole's group recently released an update that tracked a slightly different population: military members, their families and civilian overseas voters. There was still a shortfall. The current number of requests as of Sept. 22 from that group was nearly 13,000. That's a drop of 70 percent from 2008, when the number was 41,762.
Although more requests are coming in every day, the gap between this year and 2008 is so wide in both groups that it raises serious concerns, Eversole said.
"The number of absentee ballots being requested is shockingly low," he said.
The group also released data that cited shortfalls compared to 2008 in Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Illinois.
A federal official countered Tuesday that government outreach efforts are better than ever, and warned against comparing figures from this political season with the 2008 race, because the two campaigns are different.
Pam Mitchell, acting director for the Federal Voter Assistance Program, said activity on the program's web site -- which includes site visits and downloading of applications -- is comparable to 2004. That was the last time an incumbent president faced off against a challenger. The 2008 race was different, she noted, because the nomination was wide open on both sides and therefore could have attracted more voter interest.
Little, the Pentagon spokesman, cited another reason why a 2012 and 2008 comparison isn't valid.
"They did a compare and contrast between this year and 2008," Little said. "And it's important to remember that there -- the number of deployed service members, especially in the war zones, has declined significantly. So just as an example, the Virginia National Guard, as I understand it, has all units home for the first time in 10 years. We have ended the war in Iraq. We have drawn down in Afghanistan. And it's not an apples-to-apples comparison."
Another issue is whether the Defense Department has followed through on changes required by the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, or MOVE. One provision required a voter assistance office at every military installation -- not necessarily a free-standing office, but a place where incoming soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines could register to vote, change address or receive other assistance when they first arrived on base.
Eversole said the department was slow to create the offices, and some offices were placed in out-of-the way locations.
Mitchell said the government is now "fully compliant" with the MOVE Act, with 221 voter assistance offices at bases in the U.S. and around the world.
Langley Air Force Base in Hampton has a voter assistance office at the Bateman Library, said 1st Lt. John Cooper, a base spokesman who is also the installation's voting assistance officer. Airman can come to the office by appointment, and there is a dedicated email box for questions and concerns. Perhaps most importantly, voting assistance is available at briefings for incoming airmen, he said.
Information on voter assistance was not available from Fort Eustis in Newport News and Naval Station Norfolk.
Meanwhile, Virginia officials have gotten into the act trying to promote military voter participation.
Back on Sept. 15, state officials publicized National Military Voter Readiness Day, encouraging members of the armed forces to apply for absentee ballots well in advance of the deadline.
In Virginia, requests to vote absentee by mail must be received by the State Board of Elections by close of business on Oct. 30, said board spokeswoman Nikki Sheridan.
Those in the armed services and others who live overseas are advised to mail their requests well before that day.
"I can't reiterate enough, the time is now," Sheridan said.