PACAF employing arsenal of tools to get troops registered, balloted
All that’s left to do now is wait.
Military commands in the Pacific have bombarded troops with information about how to cast a ballot from overseas and the importance of exercising their right to vote in the Nov. 2 general election.
Taped radio messages from top brass. Voter booths with stacks of federal registration post cards outside commissaries and base exchanges. Essay contests. Mass briefings and e-mails. Armed Forces Voters Week. Posters galore.
The message is hard to miss.
“They tell you in every commander’s call, in every briefing they tell you” about how to sign up to vote, said Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Santana-Liranzo of the 51st Logistics Readiness Squadron, Osan Air Base, South Korea.
“I don’t think you can miss it,” said Tech. Sgt. Adrian Outlaw, an instruments processor with 35th Dental Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan. “It’s every place you look.”
Whether the Pacific’s military voting juggernaut succeeds remains to be seen.
Defense Department officials have said they hope to increase the 69 percent voting rate among uniformed men and women from the 2000 election.
Four years ago, an estimated 29 percent of military personnel who wanted to vote did not get absentee ballots or received them too late, according to published reports. Problems included late primaries in some states and a sluggish military postal system, but base voting programs also were criticized for not educating personnel about the overseas balloting process.
Voting officers in the Pacific say they’re doing their part this year: Across the board, all services report nearly reaching their goal of “100 percent contact,” saying just a few stragglers remain.
Col. David A. Tom, chief of Pacific Air Forces Force Management and Development, said of the 40,500 Air Force personnel assigned throughout the Pacific theater, voting officers at PACAF bases had reached all but two.
“Folks are working fast and feverishly to make sure they make contact with these folks as we speak,” he said.
PACAF officials advise that absentee registration cards should have been mailed by Sept. 15, to allow states adequate time for processing, and that ballots be sent by Oct. 15.
At Air Force bases in the Pacific, voting officers keep a list of Air Force active-duty names provided by the personnel flight and report their progress weekly to PACAF headquarters in contacting those individuals.
Capt. David Faggard, a PACAF spokesman, noted that in addition to military personnel, voting officers have contacted 3,900 civilians, adult dependents and members from other services, for a total of 44,000 people.
The onslaught of information appears to be reaching some airmen.
Master Sgt. Paul Luers of the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, registered to vote about three years ago in California but said he wasn’t sure if it was still valid. He was contacted numerous times by his unit’s voting assistance officer, who supplied information about voting overseas.
But Luers said he had to work the day they registered prospective voters at the civil engineer squadron, so he signed a new card during last week’s registration drive at the Yokota Community Center.
“If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do it as easy,” he said. “I registered again just in case my old one isn’t good anymore.”
Army officials in South Korea say their plan to have “100 percent contact” with every soldier on the peninsula was mostly effective. Thanks to a Pentagon-ordered accounting of every soldier in every unit, voting assistance officers were sent to mandatory musters for all units.
At those formations, units were to have full accountability for every soldier; at the same time, the voting assistance officials handed them ballot applications and voter information.
At Camp Zama, Japan, U.S. Army Japan spokesman Maj. John Amberg said all soldiers and community members have been informed about the procedures for voting from overseas.
On Okinawa, the Marines bombarded their personnel with information on how to apply for absentee ballots.
“The Marine Corps had a goal to reach every member by August 15,” said Capt. Travis Butts, the Marine installation voting assistance officer for bases in Japan. “And following that outreach period we’ve been passing out fliers and the federal postcard applications at base exchanges and food courts and places like The Spot on Camp Foster and the American Grill on the flight line on Futenma.”
Jon Dahlen, a spokesman for Camp Fuji, Japan, confirmed that all Marines at that tiny installation were accounted for in the voter-registration process about two weeks ago.
“We did it as a professional military education class and explained how important it was to vote and what voting meant to young Marines,” he said. “All hands were required to attend. It went over very well, and everyone signed up to vote.
“The absentee ballots were all handed out to everybody. We’ve done everything we can except put it in the mail for them.”
Lance Cpl. Johnny Sonseca of Headquarters Battalion Camp Fuji was among those who attended the session earlier this month at the base’s enlisted club.
“It was very helpful,” he said. “Everything went very smoothly, and it didn’t take that long at all. I’ve never voted before, but I’m trying to this time. I didn’t know we had the opportunity to do it over here until I came over.”
Voting assistance officers at both Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, and Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, say they each distributed more than 800 federal registration post cards.
“Now it’s hard to say how many of those have actually registered. But it was pretty promising,” said Staff Judge Advocate Lt. Maribel Mercado, Sasebo’s voting assistance officer.
Lt. Eudora Franklin, voting officer for Commander Naval Forces Japan headquarters, said she had ensured all 213 people had been contacted and briefed about how to vote from overseas, including holding special sessions and individual briefings for those who were on temporary duty elsewhere or on leave. “We’re good to go,” she said.
Franklin said Navy headquarters had been tracking how the process was working. First, it was required that voting assistance officers showed that they had been assigned. And by Aug. 13, she said, the officers were supposed to have made contact with 100 percent of the sailors and civilians in their commands.
Each command has a top voting assistance officer, and in larger commands, each department also will appoint a voting officer.
Still, 100 percent contact may be unrealistic.
Petty Officer 1st Class Terrence Tramm ell, who had been assigned to the USS O’Brien, was on temporary duty on the base while the O’Brien cruised to San Diego to be decommissioned. Trammell said he was on the ship in July and noticed a lot of materials out about voting but that he wasn’t contacted personally. “I couldn’t have been,” he said. “I was only on the ship for two weeks of the past four months.”
Trammell, 39, said he did know how to vote from overseas but he hadn’t registered. But on Sept. 20, he was going to San Diego, where he was going to retire from the Navy. “I’ll work it from there,” he said.
Although commands can do all they can to inform servicemembers how to vote, they can’t make it mandatory.
“We’re not pressuring anyone to actually register to vote,” said Col. David A. Tom from PACAF. “We stress this is really an important entitlement for all Americans, regardless if they’re in the military or not.”
“They can do everything up to the point of mailing out the ballot for everyone, so it’s kind of up to us now,” said Sgt. Tasha Owens of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. “Personally, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to have a say, but there’s always people who think it’s just too much of a bother.”
Another soldier, Pfc. Chris Gantry, of 8th Army at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea, said he was still mulling over his decision.
“I have the ballot application and everything. I guess I just have to stop being lazy and fill it out and mail it,” he said. “Sure, voting’s important, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on. I think the Army did a good job of making it available to everyone, but a lot of the guys I know don’t really care one way or the other.”
Some Marines got the message, but are going to pass on the election in November.
“They sent the information to our shop, but I’m just not interested this year,” said Lance Cpl. Tim Desmond, 20, as he walked into the Camp Foster Shoppette. His friend Cpl. James Koar, 22, also said he was not interested.
“They’re both liars and they’re both rich and I’m not,” Koar said. “If Nader had a chance, I’d vote for him.”
Others made a special point of making sure they’d get an absentee ballot.
“I feel it’s so important that when I was home in Weatherford, Texas, this summer I personally put in a change of address to make sure they mail me a ballot,” said Deborah Davidson, the wife of a Marine assigned to Camp Foster.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Luis Renova, an electronics technician at Misawa Naval Air Facility, Japan, said he was briefed on the voting process in general military training about two months ago, but did not receive a federal registration card.
Even if he had, he seemed disinterested in voting. “I haven’t gotten around to it,” he said. “The message is out there; it’s just taking the initiative to vote.”
—David Allen, Franklin Fisher, Joseph Giordono, Vince Little, Nancy Montgomery and Greg Tyler contributed to this story.