By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — The Pentagon acknowledges that it’s not living up to federal voting laws, but the brass says it has a better idea.
The Pentagon Inspector General’s Office recommends Congress waive the mandate for placing voter assistance offices on military bases, and leave it to service branch leaders to determine how best to help service personnel cast ballots.
The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009 was intended to provide absentee ballots to highly transient military voters stationed across the globe.
But the IG report this month acknowledged that only half of America’s 229 overseas bases have facilities where troops can register to vote and obtain absentee ballots.
Critics say the Pentagon’s failure to establish such facilities by the 2010 deadline has depressed ballot requests this year.
Compiling data from Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Alaska, Colorado and Nevada, the Military Voter Protection Project found that military families have requested 55,510 absentee ballots so far this year — a sharp decline from the 166,252 sought in those states in 2008.
And that’s just the stateside figure. MVP founder Eric Eversole suggests that the drop-off could be even more drastic overseas.
“The fact is that an incredibly small percentage of military voters are requesting absentee ballots for the 2012 election, even though a majority of military members — roughly two-thirds — will need to vote by absentee ballot,” Eversole said.
Although the Sept. 22 overseas deadline for requesting absentee ballots has passed, Pam Mitchell, acting director of the Federal Voter Assistance Program, is not worried.
Instead, she said her office has shifted to “more intuitive, easy-to-use web-based tools” that cost less than dedicated base offices.
“More than 341,000 federal post card applications have been downloaded from the FVAP website,” Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokeswoman, told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
“At this time in 2008, there were approximately 566,000 downloads. However, please keep in mind that there is a sitting president this year with an uncontested primary, unlike 2008,” Hull-Ryde said.
She added, “Between 2004 and 2012, we are very close to running the same amount of downloads.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was not impressed. In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Cornyn stated, “We have concluded that the Defense Department stands in clear violation” of the MOVE Act’s office requirement.
“The price of the (department’s) failure to follow the law will likely be paid this November by military service members and their families,” the senator concluded in the letter; excerpts were published by the Washington Times.
But the Pentagon fired back, saying Congress failed to authorize additional funding to implement MOVE. The IG estimated that the cost to establish and staff military voter offices could top $20 million per year.
Eversole disputes the funding complaint, saying Congress appropriated $75 million over the past three years for military voter-assistance efforts.
Claude Chafin, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, also pooh-poohed the Pentagon’s poor-mouth defense.
“If they needed more funds, they would traditionally ask for it in a reprogramming request — which they never did,” said Chafin.
“We asked the service chiefs if they had any unfunded needs, and none said they needed more money for voting assistance.”
Meantime, more military-vote glitches have arisen closer to home.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin after dozens of municipal clerks missed the deadline for sending absentee ballots to military voters in advance of a Feb. 18 election. It was the second time DOJ sued the Badger State for not complying with the MOVE Act.
Contact Ward at email@example.com or (571) 319-9824