By Jennifer Rizzo
Assistance to military voters is the best it has ever been, the Pentagon said on Wednesday in rebutting criticism that it is not helping troops navigate the voting process.
"Voting assistance for our absentee military and overseas citizen voters has never been better," said Pam Mitchell, the acting director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which oversees the effort.
Mitchell listed avenues like outreach through social media websites, the availability of call centers, unit officer help and voting assistance offices as examples of the options available to service members requesting voting information.
A recent report, however, from a military voting advocacy group found that requests from service members for absentee ballots are remarkably low this year, specifically faulting the Defense Department's voting assistance offices.
"The absentee ballot data for 2012 paints a bleak picture for military voters," a report from the Military Voting Participation Project said.
In Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio fewer than 2% of all active duty military members and their spouses have requested absentee ballots for the November election. Between 5% and 8% of military voters in Illinois, Colorado, Nevada and Alaska have made the same request. In Florida, almost 16% have requested ballots, the report showed.
Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada and Florida are battleground states in the upcoming presidential election.
States profiled were those that had the most accurate and up to date information, according to the group.
The report estimates roughly two thirds of all military voters would need an absentee ballot to vote.
"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 will need to vote by absentee ballot," the report found.
The group expects absentee ballot requests to increase in coming weeks but said the "alarming and significant decrease" will make it tough to meet 2008 request levels. Roughly 19 percent of military voters requested an absentee ballot in 2008, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
"Our service members have made tremendous sacrifices especially over the last decade and they should have a reasonable and fair opportunity to have their voices heard on Election Day," said Eric Eversole with the Military Voter Protection Project.
Congress approved a law in 2009 to help streamline military voting, mandating that assistance offices be established on every installation, except for those in war zones. The Defense Department said 221 offices have been set up.
The Pentagon's inspector general's office tested the claim using contact information available to service personnel. However, the agency watchdog said in a report that it was only able to reach about half of the offices listed.
"The contact information that they used to try to establish contact with the installation voter assistance offices very simply was outdated," Mitchell said at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday. "Why was it outdated? Because in a military environment things change. Military members are reassigned."
Mitchell said the voter assistance effort has since called all of the offices to be certain the contact information posted on their website is correct.
"We are committed between now and the general election (to) calling each of the 221 offices every single week to make sure that we have the most updated information," she said.
The inspector general's office also found that some of the voter assistance offices were not walk-in friendly and that cost was a reason why the Pentagon had not established all of the offices as intended by law.
The Defense Department does have some concerns. It believes that the voter assistance offices are ineffective and not the most cost efficient way to reach out to service personnel between 18 and 25, the largest segment of the military population.
"They suggested assistance might be provided more effectively and efficiently by targeted advertising, technology, like Twitter and Facebook, and online tools, supplemented by well-trained unit voting assistance officers, who are already in place," inspector general's report said.
Inspector general's report recommended a legislative proposal to release the Defense Department from the requirement that every installation have a voting assistance office, and instead allow the military to decide what voter assistance services work best on each installation.