By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — It’s probably going to be dismal year for absentee voting by military members overseas, as evidenced by the low number of requested ballots for the November election.
But one expert says he is fairly certain it’s not about the ongoing drawdown in U.S. troops overseas, or simple disinterest. It’s more about a systemic problem with voting access in the U.S. military.
“The Department of Defense does a lot of things incredibly well. They keep us safe, they protect our freedoms, they’ve done a tremendous job of protecting this country,” said Eric Eversole, founder and director of the Military Voter Protection Project. “But when it comes to other issues, things that aren’t directly related to war-fighting, that’s when they don’t do a very good job often.”
The traditional avenues civilians have for registering to vote, such as signing up at the nearest driver’s services office and registration drives on college campuses, for the most part don’t exist for military members, who frequently move around and work at locations with restricted public access.
A 2009 law — the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment, or “MOVE,” Act — was supposed to help make it easier for military men and women overseas and citizens who live abroad to vote in U.S. elections. It’s part of the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which also guides overseas absentee voting.
But a Defense Department inspector general’s report in September showed numerous problems with military voting, including installations lacking offices where service men and women can register to vote or pick up absentee ballots. According to the report, investigators tried to contact 229 voting-assistance offices but were able to reach only 114 of them. The MOVE Act requires that all military installations have the offices.
“We concluded the Services had not established all the (voting assistance offices) as intended by the MOVE Act because, among other issues, the funding was not available,” the inspector general’s report reads.
It also noted the offices probably are not the best way to reach young members of the military because they are used to communicating online and using the Internet for information.
The whole situation is complicated, Eversole said, noting that most military installations do not allow groups to hold voter registration drives on bases.
“And I think there’s some long-standing cultural hurdles inside of the military where there often are questions as to whether service members should participate in the political process,” he said.
His group tries to find other ways to remind service men and women to register or seek an absentee ballot, including by advertising in military publications and using the Internet.
“It’s a complicated process, and after years of being disenfranchised, I think there are a lot of voters who say, ‘Why bother?’” he said. “What we try to do … is really try to create a positive message for our service members that emphasizes they ought to participate and that we really want to her their voice in the election, and then provide them with the tools to do so.”
In Illinois, as of Sept. 22, the 45th day before the Nov. 6 election, the state’s board of elections had received 11,063 requests for absentee ballots for military and overseas voters. On the 45th day in 2010, the state had received 16,589 absentee ballot requests. That’s about a 25 percent drop, which, coincidentally, is about what Eversole expects to be the average drop nationwide this election.
Illinois elections officials don’t know what’s behind the decrease. In 2010, they received about 2,500 additional absentee MOVE requests after the 45-day mark.
“Whether or not the number of people in the military in Illinois has gone down that are serving overseas this year compared to what it was to two years ago or four years ago, which all could be a factor, that could show a decline in the numbers,” said Rupert Borgsmiller, director of the Illinois State Board of Elections. “All we have is raw numbers. We can’t speculate on why the numbers are down.”
The Illinois Army and Air National Guards had about 4,000 members deployed overseas in 2008, more than 1,200 in 2010 and under 1,000 in 2012. It was unknown how many service men and women in the rest of the military are considered eligible to vote in Illinois.
Eversole said that, ultimately, the important thing is to make sure military members are election ready – that is, they have access to a ballot. Whether or not they vote is up to them.
“I think that’s some of the source of frustration. The MOVE law was supposed to make it easier. What it’s done is make us hope an avalanche of absentee ballots come in in these final weeks before the election,” he said. “That’s not good election management.”