Voting abroad: In war zone, voting is not the top priority
August 25, 2008
(Second in a three-part series)
The voting assistance officers assigned to help their comrades vote sometimes face challenges in convincing a deployed soldier that casting a ballot should be a priority.
Add the breakneck tempo of military life as two wars are waged and the difficulty assigning and keeping voting assistance officers, and helping troops vote is further complicated.
In November, Capt. Nina Cuevas was ordered to be her brigade’s voting assistance officer. Cuevas oversees voting outreach for the entire 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, a unit in the midst of a deployment in Iraq where Election Day will probably pass like any other.
From brigade headquarters at Camp Liberty, Cuevas is in charge of voting assistance officers down to the company level while juggling her primary job duties.
While she’s had trouble receiving voting materials from some states, she said the biggest challenge to this second duty has nothing to do with access to ballots in the war zone.
"The challenge isn’t getting voting materials to our soldiers but getting soldiers to vote," Cuevas said in a June e-mail. "Many soldiers are not interested in voting. Any soldier who has access to a computer can access voting materials. All bases, even the small ones, have means to deliver mail."
But for troops who do want to cast a ballot, access to information can depend on their unit voting assistance officer’s level of interest and other jobs.
Transfers to new assignments can throw a base’s voting assistance officer status into question. And in these days of strain on U.S. forces, enfranchising military voters is another challenge to add to an already sizable leadership to-do list.
It wasn’t easy last time around either.
About 119,000 absentee ballots for overseas military were requested in 2006, about 10 percent of overseas military. Of those 119,000 ballots, only about 57,000 were actually cast and counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Government officials are unable to explain that discrepancy.
Voting assistance programs for the military services are guided by Defense Department policy and, in particular, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which is in charge of all U.S. overseas voters.
Jeannie Callaghan, a researcher at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, was tapped to be the area’s voting assistance officer in 2002 when a commander realized the mandated position wasn’t staffed.
Callaghan said overseas voters in military communities are well-served but that voting isn’t that high a priority for soldiers going to war.
"It’s very low on their list of priorities," she said. "When they talk about pre-deployment checklists, most of the lieutenant colonels and colonels say there’s way too much on them already."
Once they are downrange, busy schedules and missions can get in the way, said Army Capt. Robert Johnston, 23, of Seattle, attached to the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment at FOB Warhorse, Iraq.
"I wouldn’t say voting is a low priority but a difficult priority," Johnston said.
He said voting officers in Iraq are helpful and supportive. But following campaigns and issues is challenging, he said.
"You know what’s going on in Iraq but it’s hard to get the news from everywhere else," Johnston said.
DOD policy on voting assistance programs, such as the ratio of unit voting assistance officers to troops, changed in recent years so that branches can be more adaptable to voting requirements even as they conduct their primary war-related missions, according to Scott Wiedemann, FVAP’s deputy director.
But DOD reports have questioned the efficacy of military voter outreach programs in recent years. According to a 2003 Office of Inspector General report, nearly 60 percent of uniformed absentee voters surveyed did not know who their unit’s voting assistance officer was.
A 2006 IG evaluation found that "knowledge of on-line information was not widespread," with only about 25 percent of respondents aware of their service’s voting Web site or the FVAP’s online resources.
A 2004 evaluation by the IG found the branch voting assistance programs were "not effective" because "voting assistance will always be a secondary duty," while a 2005 report states "it is unreasonable to expect significant improvement in the FVAP as long as the key players — VAOs — are required to divert their attention away from mission-essential (primary) duties. "
Wiedemann said those reports are a few years old and the FVAP recommends but does not mandate that installation commanders appoint civilians as voting assistance heads in the name of consistency.
"Voting isn’t always number one on the priority list, but at the same time they are required to have time and materials to carry that duty out," he said.
DOD and branch officials questioned the accuracy of the survey’s numbers in some of the IG reports, contending that the survey sizes were too small to be precise.
Turnover in voting assistance slots due to deployment or transfer is inevitable, according to Bill Kiser, who runs the U.S. European Command voting assistance program.
"Part of our program is making sure that each VAO has a continuity book so they can turn that over to whoever replaces them," Kiser said. "I think we do well by getting out what we have. There’s always room to improve things. Internet voting would be one."
Jon Grayson, a civilian employee who oversees the voting assistance officers at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea, said the 93 voting assistance officers working under him have handed out about 12,000 voting assistance cards in the past 15 months. Servicemembers and civilians processing through the 1st Replacement Company at Yongsan receive cards as well.
He said this is his seventh year as a voting assistance officer, and his second presidential election, and twice the number of soldiers have requested the voting assistance service available to them at Humphreys as during the last election.
"I think this election, especially, is going to be a big turnout because [servicemembers] want to get their two cents in with what’s going on," he said.
Cuevas said the absentee voting system and the FVAP Web site are solid options for those wanting to vote, but improvements could be made by assigning voting assistance slots before deployment and ensuring soldiers register before heading downrange.
"A soldier who is busy with convoys on a daily basis doesn’t want to have to think about where he/she is registered then wait five to six weeks to get the absentee ballot back," she said. "In this age, people want instant gratification, so having soldiers registered beforehand can help facilitate that."
While enthusiasm among voting assistance officers varies, Air Force Master Sgt. Chad Gallant said he is "energized" to help his fellow airmen vote.
He is the Team Mildenhall alternate voting assistance officer at RAF Mildenhall, England, overseeing efforts under the 100th Air Refueling Wing.
Gallant said there are many ways for voting assistance officials to get the word out on absentee voting materials. It’s harder to know if any of it is working.
"It’s very difficult to get feedback," he said. "We don’t know if our efforts are fruitless or if we’re getting the job done."
Gallant said the FVAP absentee voting materials and Web site are a "fairly solid system."
While personal motivations and enthusiasm to vote are as individualized as the people serving in the U.S. military, Gallant said he sees voting as part-and-parcel to the oath he took as an airman.
"As an American in uniform, we need to take it that much more seriously," he said. "We’re physically protecting that. I see it as more of a duty than a right."
Stars and Stripes reporters T.D. Flack and Sean Kimmons contributed to this story.
The series ...
In a war zone, voting is not the top priority
With big voting initiatives ineffective or delayed, small approaches are pursued
Are you aware?
According to a 2006 survey of the DOD’s voting assistance program by the Ofﬁce of the Inspector General:
59 percentof surveyed military members knew where to obtain voting information on base.
40 percentreceived voting information or assistance from their unit’s voting assistance ofﬁcer.
33 percentof troops surveyed were familiar with the Federal Post Card Application, the form needed to register and request absentee ballots.
31 percentwere aware of the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, an emergency form for registered voters if their absentee ballots don't arrive two weeks before Election Day.
25 percentwere aware of the voting resources their military branch had to offer.
‘Tens of thousands’The number of FPCAs distributed to the estimated 2.7 million military members and dependents since Sept. 1, 2007. DOD regulation requires that FPCAs be distributed to all servicemembers and dependents by Jan. 15 of each year.
2.6 millionThe estimated number of military personnel and dependents.