Fewer troops requesting absentee ballots in Florida
TAMPA — With only a few weeks left for those in the military or overseas to cast a ballot, the number of absentee ballots requested by those groups has dropped nearly 50 percent in Florida compared with the last presidential election, according to a military voter watchdog group.
In 2008, more than 121,000 military and overseas Florida absentee ballots were requested, according to the Military Voter Protection Project. As of Sept. 22, that number was slightly more than 65,000, according to the organization, created in 2010 by a former Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps officer concerned about low military voting numbers.
The deadline for requesting any absentee ballot in Florida is Oct. 31.
The decline is less severe in Hillsborough County, which has seen a 25 percent drop in the ballot requests since the 2010 election. As of Tuesday, 4,162 military and overseas absentee ballots have been requested, compared with about 5,300 in 2010, said Hillsborough County Election Supervisor spokesman Travis Abercrombie.
Abercrombie said the county does not break out the number of military-only absentee ballots. However, the Military Voter Protection Project said that in 2008 and 2010 about 70 percent of the military and overseas absentee ballots were requested by military personnel and their families.
The ballots have become a point of political contention nationwide as some Republicans have accused the Obama administration of trying to thwart military voters, seen as likely to vote Republican.
Abercrombie said that with nearly a month to go, it is still too early to discern any trends, but that a 2011 change in state absentee ballot requirements that made a request good for two years instead of one might be a factor.
Military Voter Protection Program founder Eric Eversole, a former Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps officer, blamed the Department of Defense for the decline. He said the Pentagon has failed to live up to a 2009 law requiring the military to improve its voter outreach.
"They are not complying with the law," he said, citing a recent report by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General.
The Aug. 31 report found that, among other problems, the military had not adequately set up voter assistance offices, a major provision of the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.
"Officials pointed out the law did not authorize … additional funding for this initiative and estimated … costs could exceed" $15 million a year at a time when military budgets are being trimmed, the report said.
Officials at MacDill Air Force Base say they are complying with the law.
The base has a voting assistance office set up in the 6th Air Mobility Wing Legal Assistance Office reception area, according to wing spokesperson Capt. Regina Gillis.
The stand-alone office has a dedicated voting assistance officer, Gillis said, and each wing unit has a voting assistance representative "trained to help military members exercise their right to vote."
Gillis said every time someone reports to the base or deploys from it, they are asked whether they want to visit their unit's voting assistance office.
Overall, requests for absentee ballots by military members are on par with 2004 but less than in 2008, according to Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, created to help troops and their families vote.
Mitchell said there are fewer requests this year than in 2008 because that election had two contested primaries. So far there have been nearly 600,000 federal postcard applications downloaded from the program's Web site. Interest has recently been increasing, she said, with about 4.5 million visits to the site in September.
In a Pentagon press conference Tuesday morning, spokesman George Little chalked up the reduced requests for absentee ballots to fewer troops being overseas with the end of the war in Iraq and the return of more than 30,000 troops from Afghanistan.
"They did a compare and contrast between this year and 2008," Little said. "And it's important to remember that the number of deployed service members, especially in the warzones, has declined significantly."
Military personnel and their families with questions about voting can go to www.fvap.gov.