Will Soldiers Get to Vote in 2008?
by Andrew Walden
Convicted felons are being registered. Some jurisdictions propose allowing non-citizens to cast ballots in state and local elections. But are our soldiers voting? After the 2004 General Election, Hawaii County Election officials reported that 2,500 Hawaii National Guard members training in Texas before deployment to Iraq did not receive their General Election ballots. Several U.S. veterans interviewed for this article report nearly zero voter participation in forward-deployed military units, on Navy ships and subs, and at overseas bases.
How low is military voter participation? It is difficult to find a single clear picture of the entire service. Service members may be in-state voters, in-state or out-of-state absentee voters, or so-called “federal voters” voting only for Federal offices. Hawaii’s statewide 2006 general election summary report gives a clue -- indicating only 237 overseas ballots cast by Hawaii-resident federal voters.
At the time there were several thousand military personnel deployed from Hawaii including soldiers and Marines stationed in the Middle East and sailors and submariners on duty at sea. Overseas ballots also include votes from thousands of American civilians abroad not connected to the military.
In the 2004 general election Hawaii reported 459 overseas ballots cast. But earlier elections tell a story of neglect:
In the 2003 Second Congressional District special election no overseas ballots were cast.
In the 2002 Primary election only two overseas ballots were cast. Overseas results were not itemized in the 2002 General election nor in the 2002 Special election. In the 2000 general election 80 overseas ballots were cast. Fifteen were cast in the 2000 primary election.
Hawaii’s military population includes about 40,000 active, reserve, and National Guard troops, along with 18,000 civilian DoD employees, and more than 55,000 military dependents. There are also over 120,000 veterans in Hawaii.
One factor contributing to low participation is the short turn-around time between the September 20 Primary election and the November 4 General election. Primary election absentee ballots are mailed out August 16. General election absentee ballots are mailed out September 30.
In those five week windows, ballots must be delivered, filled out, and then mailed back. For personnel in combat zones, on submarines, or aboard ship this is nearly impossible. A patrolling submarine may not receive mail for six months at a time; ships irregularly; forward-deployed combat units perhaps once every two weeks. Personnel transferred to a new post may have mail delayed by two or three weeks. If ballot preparation is delayed by a disputed election result or a recount, the schedule gets even tighter.
U.S. Marine veteran Dylan Nonaka, now serving as Governor Lingle’s East Hawaii Liaison, reports that his unit of nearly 200 Marines had little or no voter participation while training at 29 Palms, California in 2000 and 2002. Most were young recruits 18 to 22 years old and likely had not registered to vote as civilians. Says Nonaka: “The only notice of the election was the need to memorize a new command structure.”
Kailua-Kona resident Susan Russell, a former Hawaii Election Commission member says: “I know there have been problems with receipt of ballots in the past. Unfortunately, many young military are not registered before deployment (but) I have never seen any obstruction from the office or any department.”
The State Election Commission offers voter registration training to military personnel, but that is focused on Hawaii voters and Hawaii “federal voters.” Many units posted in Hawaii include personnel from all 50 states. Those with ties to a particular state and county often wish to participate in their local elections as an absentee voter. Others have maximized their pay by establishing their legal residence in a state to which they have no ties because that state has no income tax.
Most voter-registration efforts are sponsored by local political entities seeking to maximize the turnout in a particular district. These efforts overlook voters seeking to register or receive ballots in other states.
On Oahu, retired US Navy Captain Carl Jacobs, an Aiea Neighborhood Council member, is trying a volunteer-based approach. Carrying registration forms for all 50 states, Jacobs sought residents whose cars display DoD insignia. He gave home-state registration forms to about 1,000 personnel and dependents in February and March of this year. According to Jacobs, most had no idea where to go to register and had not been contacted about registration.
Says Jacobs: “No one contacts the dependents. The best way to do this is to walk the neighborhood, look for military decals and make a personal contact. Another approach…would be at Commissaries or Exchanges. This would require trained Registrars and Base Commanding Officer approval. (Registration efforts) need to get boots on the ground in Korea, Japan, Diego Garcia, and Guam where we have permanently stationed Active Duty personnel. I've been stationed at all four and there is zero effort to get the vote out.”
Overseas federal voters receive a modified ballot known as a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), also known as Standard Form 76 (SF 76). These are available from www.FVAP.gov. This allows them to vote in Presidential, Senate and Congressional races. Their votes count in the state and congressional district they list as their home. There have been efforts to streamline overseas voting and allow voting by email but these have been hampered by concerns over potential fraud.
In addition to the difficulty in finding the correct registration and ballot information, military personnel are frustrated by a feeling that their ballots are not being counted. Many remember 2000: As Al Gore attempted to take the Florida election, Democrat lawyers sought to invalidate numerous overseas ballots including those cast by sailors fighting to save the USS Cole. Four years later Florida Democrats worked to reinstate the right to vote for every Florida convicted felon they could find.
Military units assign one “Voter Assistance Officer” (VAO) -- a low status duty often given to the junior commissioned officer. VAOs post announcements on bulletin boards and perform other duties while waiting for service members to contact them. They get very few inquiries. This contrasts sharply to the results obtained by “Combined Federal Campaign” (United Way and other charities) recruiting among military personnel. Combined Federal Campaign officers are instructed to make a single one-on-one positive contact with each member of their unit. As a result about 60 percent to 65 percent of uniformed military personnel sign up for payroll deduction contributions.
If VAOs followed the United Way model contacting each service member once about voter registration and again about voting itself, it is likely that voter participation among military personnel would increase sharply. Military voter participation can also be improved by including voter registration and absentee ballot assistance in mandatory pre-deployment “family support” counseling.
From 2.5 million American uniformed military personnel, perhaps as many as 1 million new voters would participate in national elections -- and these are the voters on whom questions of war and peace weigh most heavily.