Military Personnel: The Truly Disenfranchised Voters

With the election just weeks away and the candidates with just points between them, every vote counts. Especially, it would seem, those of the thousands of men and women defending those votes by serving in the military. Reassuringly, Pamela Mitchell, Director of Federal Voter Assistance, recently said that in terms of the military vote effort, they’ve “never done it better.”

To date, 30 municipalities in Wisconsin have failed to send out military absentee ballots before the deadline. The Obama campaign recently sued Ohio over a measure that allows military personnel 3 additional days to vote early. Close to 50% of the IVAOs (Installation Voting Assistance Offices) were unreachable on bases and military installations, despite the Military Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009, which was meant to facilitate the military vote.

The Department of Justice has invested a great deal of time fighting “voter disenfranchisement” by opposing voter ID measures across the country,  so where is the Department of Justice when it comes to the military vote?

Captain Pete Hegseth, a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, and now CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, debunks Ms. Mitchell’s claim, and took some time out of his day to reveal some truly concerning facts.

“It’s a matter of leadership, and a matter of priority,” said Hegseth, who in reference to a recently released statistic which revealed that only 34% of the military supports the current administration, said that “though I hate it when things get politicized, if this were a key constituency for this current administration, I think you’d see a different response.”

Recently, a DoD Inspector General’s report stated that the reason behind the dismal percentage (around 50%) of bases and military installations containing an operable IVAO (Installation Voting Assistance Office) was that the funding wasn’t there.  Specifically, “We concluded the Services had not established all the IVAOs as intended by the MOVE Act because, among other issues, the funding was not available.  Officials pointed out the law did not authorize DoD additional funding for this initiative and estimated IVAO costs could exceed $15-20 million per year.”

Hegseth said this is unequivocally false. In fact, he stated that the DoD never even made the request for funding to facilitate voting. He’s not alone in this accusation—Hegseth referenced Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who just last month wrote a letter to the DoD in which he made the following admonition:

“DoD claims that the funding necessary to implement this on-base voter assistance program has simply been unavailable.  This claim is disingenuous.  DoD has never asked Congress for this funding, [emphasis mine] as evidenced by DoD’s own budget requests for FVAP for the three fiscal years following enactment of the MOVE Act (FY11 through FY13).  In those years, the budget request for FVAP averaged more than $30 million per year, including over $46 million for FY11, though none of that funding was intended for the on-base voter assistance program.  It is sometimes said that the budget is policy and, here, it appears that DoD’s policy was to disregard the clear will of Congress.  

There is no excuse for DoD ignoring the clear intent of Congress that these voter assistance offices be established and operated on every military installation.  The MOVE Act was not optional, and neither is our moral duty to protect the civil rights of our men and women in uniform and their families. They make tremendous sacrifices in the defense of our nation, but those sacrifices do not and should not include their right to vote.”

In other words, not only were the funds not requested, but to insinuate that the DoD had actively requested funding for voting-related activities is false.  Any funds requested in previous years were then allocated to other things. And, with a request rate for absentee ballots down exponentially from 2008, (with some states seeing request levels of as low as 2%), it appears the DoD has done little to implement the MOVE Act in any way.

In the same report, the DoD claimed that IVAOs weren’t particularly effective, citing that social media outlets might be more valuable to today’s younger military generation.

“So, what they’re essentially saying is that the answer is Twitter,” said Hegseth, who once served as a voting assistance officer, “What’s being said is that ‘we haven’t fulfilled our responsibilities with the resources we had to open these offices which are supposed to make voting easier, so instead we’ll just say it’s easier to do over Twitter and Facebook,’ which is a cop-out argument.” Hegseth stated that they could certainly look into developing these social media tools as a means of communicating information, but that on-base offices are still vital, especially since military personnel are some of the most transient citizens in this country and need access to information at each base or installation.

Hegseth voiced a frustration with the government’s ability to communicate information quickly to military personnel . . . when it wants to. “When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, I was on my way to Afghanistan, and in very short order we were all given a briefing on the matter,” said Hegseth, “It was very clear that there was a concerted effort to ensure that this information was pushed as quickly as possible to everyone in the military from the top down. You just don’t see this kind of urgency on voting in the military.”

States like Ohio have recognized the need to better facilitate the military vote. And, instead of ensuring the implementation of the MOVE Act, the Obama campaign decided to sue Ohio. This state, which already has exceptionally flexible absentee and early voting laws for all of its citizens, was told that the differentiation and extra consideration given to the military is “arbitrary,” and that all citizens in Ohio should get this extra time. “This erodes the special consideration that the military has always enjoyed in matters of this nature, and to chip away at that sets a dangerous precedent,” said Hegseth, who believes this attitude towards the military is an overall problem that goes beyond voting. Shortly after this interview took place, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to grant an emergency stay to an appeal in this case, effectively handing the Obama campaign a victory. Yes, military personnel can still vote early, ( as can any Ohioan now)  but the historical precedence of granting special consideration to military personnel has been is further corroded with this decision.

While the administration seems to elevate veterans verbally, actions speak otherwise. “The administration never passes up an opportunity to talk about veterans; to talk about military families; in fact, the DNC was focused on that heavily throughout the convention,” stated Hegseth, “the problem is that that rhetoric doesn’t match reality.”

Hegseth pointed to several examples in addition to the voting problem, among them the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “Backlogs of vets waiting on claims have doubled since 2008. The length of time spent waiting on claims has increased by 150%,” said Hegseth, who also pointed to the horrendous unemployment numbers among veterans. A whopping 10% of Iraq and Afghanistan Vets are unemployed, and 19% of those are under the age of 24. Hegseth also noted the increase in national security leaks. “We talk about killing Bin Laden, but we don’t talk about the fact that we gave away information and now as a result there’s a Pakistani doctor in jail for 33 years,” said Hegseth, “This and any number of things make it clear that this administration’s rhetoric doesn’t match its actions.”

There’s some light at the end of the tunnel, however, as Hegseth highlighted the vital efforts of private organizations like HeroesVote.org and the Military Protection Project (mvpproject.org), which are able to help simultaneously register military voters and request absentee ballots. The problem comes when states and the municipalities (as seen in Wisconsin) are tasked with getting those ballots back to the military, and then processed on time once received in return. “Again it is tied to leadership, and typically funding,” said Hegseth who already made clear the fact that funds are available to facilitate these measures but were not requested.

According to Hegseth and his organization, military voting is just one data point in a large indicator of something wrong. The Department of Defense is, after all, a massive bureaucracy, and as Hegseth put it, “if you don’t have the right focus; if you don’t crystallize those priorities and push them down the chain of command, they aren’t going to happen.”

Concerned Veterans for America is sponsoring a ten day “We Can Do Better” bus tour to “generate awareness of the mounting challenges facing service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans of all generations.” Please click here for more information on this important swing-state tour. 

One thought on “Military Personnel: The Truly Disenfranchised Voters

  1. Just wanted to note, for your readers — when my son Ben was in the infantry in Iraq, in 2008, I asked him if he was going to vote. He said, “No, Mom — it requires filling out tons of paperwork, it would take forever, and I don’t have time between missions.” My thought was – for crying out loud, the Army has every MOLECULE of information on you, what other information would they need?
    Good article Mary!!!

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