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Dozens of House and Senate members are asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the federal agency responsible for assisting overseas military voters, saying the potential exists for troops to be denied their chance to cast a ballot this year.

In an Aug. 1 letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and 34 other House and Senate members characterized the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s efforts as "wholly inadequate." They asked the Justice Department to determine whether the agency is "fulfilling its legal obligations" to provide troops and their families with voting information and resources.

"We write to express serious concerns regarding the potential disenfranchisement of America’s military service members during the coming November 2008 elections, and we ask for your help in protecting for them the very rights they fight to safeguard," the letter states.

The Justice Department did not return requests for comment by Stars and Stripes’ deadline.

Cornyn spokesman Brian Walsh said in an e-mail Thursday that the senator is looking forward to a response from the Justice Department.

The letter hits on a variety of alleged deficiencies within the voting program, which falls under the Defense Department.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act was enacted partly to make things easier for overseas military and their families, the letter states, but only 5.5 percent of total eligible military voters successfully cast a ballot in 2006.

Of the 119,000 absentee ballots requested by overseas military members in 2006, only about 48 percent of those were counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

"These low participation rates raise serious questions regarding the FVAP’s commitment to fulfilling the statutory obligations to assist these voters," the letter states.

The lawmakers also questioned the Voting Assistance Officer program, which involves one member of a unit helping comrades navigate the complicated absentee voting process. Pointing to studies showing 40 percent of surveyed troops didn’t know where to obtain voting information on base, the letter also contends that voting assistance officers aren’t complying with a DOD regulation dictating that VAOs hand out absentee ballot applications by Jan. 15 of each year.

These deficiencies have been publicly conceded by FVAP officials. In April, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Michael Dominguez testified to the U.S. House Administration Committee that FVAP had distributed "tens of thousands" of absentee ballot applications, known as the Federal Post Card Application.

This is a drop in the bucket considering there are an estimated 2.6 million overseas troops and dependents, the letter states.

FVAP has also failed to take "the most obvious steps to correct these problems," the letter states. The agency sent out one e-mail to the 1.4 million overseas troops between September and April, instead of sending out more timely voting guidance.

"This lack of DOD-wide communication is puzzling, given the ease and cost-effectiveness of sending emails to military voters," the letter states. "We ask that the DoJ undertake this investigation with the utmost urgency so that we can avert what would be an absolutely unacceptable outcome — the disenfranchisement of our military service members and their dependents in the November 2008 election."

During a press conference July 31, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said encouraging troops to vote is "a high priority," and that he would "go find out if things are on track … as I have been told they are, in terms of making sure that we have the ballots and things available for our troops."

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