The U.S. military is making one last push to get troops, especially those posted overseas, to register to vote, as the first state deadlines for absentee registration approach this week.
The push, headlined by a video message from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, comes as current and former officials are pushing back against reports that military registration is down compared with 2008.
"This Election Day, I encourage you and your family to play an important part in our great democracy," said Mr. Panetta in the videotaped message played on Armed Forces Network TV over the weekend. "You have more than earned the right to vote."
"Please exercise the very privilege that you're willing to fight and die for in order to protect," he implored.
Robert H. Carey Jr., former director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, challenged reports that noted a decline in military voting.
"Reports of precipitous drops in military voting hide the actual experience of a significant increase in military voting this year," said Mr. Carey.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program, which helps troops negotiate the confusing patchwork of 50 sets of state rules about absentee registration and voting, is orchestrating the last-minute campaign. Last week, it sent the sixth in a series of "blast" emails to everyone with a military email address. About 12 million emails have been sent out, with one more blast planned before Election Day.
"If you have not requested your absentee ballot for the 2012 general election, you should do so immediately," reads the email, which advises troops on how to download the right forms from the program's website. The instructions include a substitute write-in ballot they can mail if their own ballot does not arrive from their state election authorities in time.
So far in the presidential election campaign, more than 627,000 people have downloaded an absentee-ballot request from FVAP.gov, said the office's Acting Director Pamela Mitchell. About 30,000 were downloaded last week.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, a total of just under half a million ballots were sent to military personnel who had registered absentee, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Seventy percent were completed and returned.
A special Federal Voting Assistance Program center has responded to more than 27,500 queries since it was set up in March. Advisers at the center answer troops' questions over the phone or via Internet chat, email or fax.
"State deadlines vary," said Ms. Mitchell. "We recommend that all service members check the deadline in their state."
She added, "It is absolutely not too late to vote."
But it soon will be, at least in some states.
Deadlines for registration arrive Tuesday in the key swing states of Ohio and Virginia. Many states have later registration deadlines, and some allow absentee ballots to arrive right up to Election Day or even after. Other states require absentee ballots to be filed in advance.
The vagaries of the military postal system, especially in war zones, mean that many completed ballots have to be mailed well ahead of Election Day.
Last week, the Military Voters Protection Project, an advocacy group, released figures they had compiled from a handful of states that showed a large decline in the numbers of ballots sent out so far in 2012, compared with 2008.
But Mr. Carey, who reached out to reporters after seeing news accounts of those figures, said that the comparison was "woefully misleading" because of an earlier federal law that made the number of absentee ballots requested appear larger in the 2008 presidential election.
Four year ago, federal law required election officials nationwide to send absentee ballots to anyone who registered that year and to anyone who had asked for an absentee ballot in the 2006 election, Mr. Carey said.
Almost one quarter of all the ballots sent out to military and overseas voters in 2008 were sent out automatically to people who had requested them two years earlier, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
Election authorities considered that requirement very burdensome, and Congress repealed it in 2009, Mr. Carey said. In the current election cycle, officials are required to send absentee ballots only to voters who request them for this year.
"When those automatically sent ballots are taken out of the 2008 numbers, and then compared to the 2012 numbers, we see in those states for which we have accurate data in both years that military and absentee ballot requests are actually increasing," he said.
Eric Eversole of the Military Voters Protection Project, which released the numbers last week, dismissed that argument.
"They were sent," he said of the automatic ballots. "More than two-thirds were returned. Why would you leave them out?"
"This story is part of a desperate attempt to deflect criticism and create misinformation regarding their failures," he said.
"Nothing more, nothing less."
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