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Defense Department Special Briefing on Federal Voting Assistance Program

Presenters: Charles Abell, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness
August 06, 2004 9:00 AM EDT

Friday, August 6, 2004 9:03 a.m. EDT

Defense Department Special Briefing on Federal Voting Assistance Program

ABELL:  Well good morning.  I want to talk to you all about voting and our efforts to ensure that military personnel, their families, and federal civilians overseas can cast their ballot this year.  And I'd like to start -- I'll give you a little briefing.  I think you have copies of the charts, or at least they are available.

 

And I'll start by talking about our scope of our responsibilities here.  It's, as you can see, much larger than just our military population; totals about 6 million voters.  I think you can see.

 

(Pauses to confer with staff regarding briefing slides.)  Can you put it up?

 

Well, while they're fooling with the slides, I'll just talk to you.  The slide would show about 1.4 million military members, about 1.3 million family members of voting age.  We have about 100,000 federal civilian employees overseas, and another about 3.7 million U.S. civilians overseas not affiliated with the government, for a total of about 6 million potential voters that our program serves.

 

Q:  Sorry.  Could I just break in just a minute, since it seems to be a major point.  You say 1.4 million in the military and 1.3 million military dependents.  This is all around the world.

 

ABELL:  Yes.

 

Q:  How many in the military are overseas and how many military dependents are overseas?

 

ABELL:  I don't have that number.

 

Q:  You have the number of civilians overseas.

 

ABELL:  Right.  This is what the program deals with.  We're concerned with military voters and family members in the United States, as well as overseas, because where they're stationed in the United States is not where they're registered to vote in most cases.

 

Q:  I understand.  But a lot of the difficulty has been with people -- with military overseas, especially those on duty.  But anyway, if you could try to get it to us, we'd appreciate it.

 

ABELL:  All right, we'll look for those numbers.  I'm not sure I accept that premise that there's difficulties.

 

Q:  Thank you.

 

Q:  And why would you be responsible for 3.7 million overseas civilians not affiliated with the government?  Who are those people?

 

ABELL:  If you're employed by a U.S. firm overseas, or you just are an expatriate who desires to live overseas, you haven't forfeited your right to vote, and we are charged -- the Department of Defense is charged with providing voting materials to those folks as well.

 

Q:  Well why?  Why would that be?

 

ABELL:  Because that's what the executive order tells us to do, I mean --

 

Q:  And that's a long-standing -- that's been going on for years?

 

ABELL:  Right -- (off mike.)

 

So as I said, our task is -- the magnitude of our task is about 6 million voters.  And this actually understates the fact that we now   have reservists mobilized, and we, of course, would pick up responsibility for making sure that they can vote as well.

The next thing I'd like to show you is a little history of voter participation.  The first line shows the general voting participation rate in the general public, '96 and 2000.  And then below it you see the uniformed services' voting participation -- considerably better -- the overseas U.S. civilians and the federal civilian overall population.

 

Again, we're very proud of this.  And then, when you factor in the propensity of 18- to 22-year-olds to vote in the general public -- our numbers, of course, heavily weighted in the 18- to 22-year category -- we're very proud of the way our folks practice their citizenship.

 

Next I'll run you through some actions we've taken since the 2000 election to make sure that our folks have a better opportunity to vote than they did in the past and that every year subsequent to this they have a yet even better opportunity.

 

We've got our DOD regulation.  The Help America Vote Act gave us guidance as well and charged the states with some responsibilities for working with us.

 

We have a monthly review with the general and flag officer level senior voting officers from the services, where we go over programs and we go over problems that anybody has identified, and we work to resolve those.

 

Our voting officer -- voting assistance officer training has increased, as you can see, from 62 sessions in 2000 to 157 so far in 2004.  The voting assistance officer is the key to this whole program. And he or she out there, in the units, with the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, they're the person that the soldier or the family member or the Marine or the family member turn to when they have questions, need assistance in voting.  And we have devoted a lot of time and attention to making sure that they're trained and aware, and they're able to provide that assistance.

 

We have a website that is truly a one-stop information center. It has training information.  It has information for voters.  It has blank forms.  It has links to the states.  It is truly a one-stop source for information.

 

Our overseas toll-free phone numbers -- as you can see, we've increased that from 58 to 66 countries in which they can call back toll-free to get questions related to voting and what happens in their states or their local municipalities.

 

We are pushing awareness in every way that we can imagine.  We've got banners and handouts in the commissaries and the exchanges.  We've asked the DOD schools to incorporate voting into their civics classes this year, in which they would invite in the local voting assistance officer, make it a part of their civics awareness.  We are using the Armed Forces Radio and Television service and the Pentagon Channel.  If you watch those outlets, you'll see numerous and frequently repeated public service type announcements urging folks to vote and to send their balloting materials in.  We have just added base theaters to that.  We'll be showing public service announcements as the -- in the trailer part or the preview part of the screenings at base theaters.

 

We're trying to communicate a positive message in the press, both national and local.  We are making presentations at the mobilization sites for those folks who are being called up, the reservists who are being called up, to make sure that we've handed them their registration and absentee ballot request before they deploy so that they are ready to go before they leave.

 

We've got three important weeks in which we focus on voting across the Department of Defense.

 

The first one was July 4th, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs filmed a video that we showed frequently over that week and called it our Overseas Citizens Voters Week; it was just an awareness campaign.

 

We have another one coming up the week of September 3rd to 11th. This is Armed Forces Voters Week.  The message in that week is that if you have not requested your ballot, or you have not registered for this election yet, you should do it; you must do it during this week to ensure that there's enough transit time to get the request back to your local voting precinct and the materials back to the individuals.

 

And then we have our Absentee Voting Week, which is -- we've selected October 11th to 15th.  And what we're telling folks there is, you should vote during that week.  That's the week you should send your ballot in if you have not already done so.

 

Now, this is sort of like the Christmas mailing season.  We're going to tell them some dates by which they should mail that ballot in, and if they do, even from the remotest part of the world to the remotest part of the United States, the ballot materials should get back to the local voting official in sufficient time to be counted in the November 2nd election.  People can vote after that.  They can send in their ballots up until the day of the election, but they risk, because of the transit time, not having that vote counted.  And so we're urging them during the week of October 11 to 15 to cast your ballot by absentee.

 

We've worked with the National Governor's Association, asked them for their support, and they have been supportive.  And we've provided our unit voting assistance officers all kinds of products to make sure that they're prepared both -- we've given it to them in hard copy books, we've given it to them on compact discs, we've provided them Internet access through the website so that they've got every opportunity to have materials to provide to the folks to whom they minister.

 

We are actively working with state election officials trying to increase the amount of electronic transmission of these materials -- again, to try and reduce the transit time that we face in the mail. And as you can see, we've increased the number of states that permit fax delivery of blank ballots from 23 to 32.  Some states will permit us to fax a ballot back to them.  Some jurisdictions will permit us to deliver the blank ballot by e-mail; in other words, the soldier, sailor, airmen and Marine can ask for it to be e-mailed to him and then they fill it out an send it in.  And we've got the online version of the federal postcard application, which is now accepted by 53 states and territories.

 

Since 2000, we've worked with the post office and with the states, and we have improved the logos and the designs on the balloting materials so that they are well recognized in the post offices and in the election officials' offices; there is no doubt that these are balloting materials and they can be handled appropriately as they see them process through.

 

And we've recently awarded a contract to facilitate e-mail delivery of blank ballots.  This will allow soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines' family members around the world to come onto a website, click on it and see whether their jurisdiction will permit electronic delivery of a blank ballot, and if so, then it will be e-mailed to them and the appropriate mailing materials will be included with that e-mail.

 

I came in on June 2nd and talked to a number of you, along with Mr. Vogel, the vice president of the USPS, about the expedited handling that the post office had offered us, where ballot materials destined for overseas APO addresses would be picked up by the postmen at the local election officials' office, put into an overnight mail envelope and overnighted then Express Mail to the gateways in San Francisco, Miami or New York, depending on where the overseas address -- which gateway serviced that overseas address.

 

Once there, these overnight expressed envelopes would be processed ahead of all the rest of the mail.  They would be put in special containers and they would ride the first airplane, the first truck, the first delivery system, until they reached the individual. And then when the individual cast his ballot or her ballot, it would follow the same process backwards.  It will be handled first and expeditiously by the mail clerks and by the military postal folks, who will then put them in the special containers and they'll get on first   trucks, first airplanes, arrive back at the gateways, where the post office will process them ahead of the rest of the mail and put them back in Express Mail, overnighted back to the local election officials.  A wonderful partnership between us and the U.S. Postal Service.

 

In addition, we've learned lessons from the 2000 election.  We had ballots, as you may recall, that were challenged because there was no postmark on them.  And even though these are postage- and fees-paid envelopes and don't require postmarks, we have now provided all of our military post offices and all of our ships at sea cancelling materials, so that we will cancel -- postmark all of the balloting materials that come through there.  The back of the ballots are part of the redesign that I talked about a few minutes ago, allow for signature and date so that there's no question as to when this ballot was sent in.  And most states have changed their laws with regard to postmarks as it is, but this is a belt-and-suspenders kind of protection operation here to make sure that we have every opportunity to have every ballot counted.

 

We survey our military post offices to make sure that they are handling all balloting materials as they are supposed to and that they are enjoying the expedited processing.  And as I pointed out earlier, we have published recommended mailing dates so that folks can know when they have to get their ballot materials in order to be sure 100 percent that they can be counted by the local official.

 

So, what are our keys to success?  Command involvement.  We've enjoyed wonderful command involvement.  The secretary himself has signed two different memos out to his combatant commanders and to his service chiefs, one on March 17th and then one again on August 5th, giving them direction, telling them this is a command responsibility, encouraging them to make sure that their voting assistance officers and that their mail personnel are all paying attention to this and that we have the processing and the business practices that we intend.

 

The service chiefs, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service secretaries have sat for interviews and done video recordings of announcements urging their folks to vote, and those run on their various outlets and on the Pentagon channel all the time.  And of course, down at the local level there are many local command programs.

 

Training.  As you saw, we -- from 62 training sessions to about 160 training sessions to make sure that our folks are prepared, that they're ready, that every unit voting officer knows what he or she is supposed to do.

 

Awareness.  We're using all available methods, as I described to you, to make sure that folks are aware of the responsibility to vote and the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot.

 

Enhancing the mail operations.  I've talked about that.  We've improved the processes.  We continue to focus command attention on the movement of mail.

 

And then the last one is the constant vigilance.  We won't stop until the election has occurred, and then we'll go back and look at   our processes and see what process improvements we can make for the future.

 

All in all, I think, a good news story.  All in all, I expect our voter participation to exceed the 2000 or the 2002 numbers.

 

So if there are questions, I'd be happy to answer them.  Yes, sir?

 

Q:  Mr. Abell, aside from emphasizing to everybody and facilitating getting the ballots back … are you still working on that, the possibility of Internet voting?

 

ABELL:  The possibility of Internet voting remains open.  Both the House and the Senate versions of the Defense Authorization Bills have provisions dealing with Internet voting.  They are not the same, so we will wait for the conference results to see what our direction is with regard to moving that effort forward.  I'm confident that it -- that if we don't, someone will, and that Internet voting will be an opportunity in the future.

 

Yes, sir.

 

Q:  Mr. Abell, after the 2000 election there were allegations on both sides that there were discussions by Democrats and Republicans of organizing get-out-the-vote efforts for the military.  Could you let us know, and let the people know who are in the military out there who are going to be running these sort of mobilization efforts, what are the rules?  What can you do on a military base?  What can you do if you're in uniform?  Can political operatives in any way get involved in organizing military votes on bases or overseas?

 

ABELL:  Well, we -- our emphasis is on providing to our people -- there are eligible voters who are either family members or members of the military or federal civilians or U.S. civilians overseas that they have an opportunity to vote -- that they have a responsibility to vote as citizens of the United States, and that we are providing them the means to do that.  This -- nothing that we have is at all related to a political campaign one way or the other, and there are rules.  The department has rules with regard to campaigning on military bases, but I think the general rule is that one cannot. But this effort is about providing an opportunity to vote, making sure everyone is aware of that and has exercised the opportunity, should they choose.

 

Yes, sir?

 

Q:  Did the department do any follow up after 2000 on -- things like how many -- what percentage of troops who requested absentee ballots actually got them; checking with local election officials on what percentages were actually counted; what the reasons were that large percentages weren't counted.  Did you do that in 2000?  And are you planning on doing that after 2004?

 

ABELL:  That wasn't done in any formal way.  There are some informal samples that have been done, and the validity of those informal samples is probably subject to some scrutiny by proponents or opponents.  We would hope to know more about that kind of -- those   kinds of statistics after this election.  But ultimately, that's a -- that's the part of it that we -- we want to make sure that everybody who wants to vote got to vote.  And the counting of the votes is the local election officials' responsibility, not ours.  I haven't found a way to match the requests to an actual vote that's in any way meaningful.

 

I mean, to take my personal example, when I served in the military, I might have requested a ballot two or three times, if I wasn't getting feedback, just to make sure that it wasn't a glitch along there someplace.  So somebody may have counted three or four requests, and that -- and I may have actually gotten materials two or three times as a result of my sending it in.  That's -- our Armed Forces Voter Week in September says if you've requested materials and you haven't gotten them, do it again.  There's even a federal overseas absentee ballot where you can send it in, even if you didn't get a ballot from your local jurisdiction.

 

So again, those are hard statistics to match, and I haven't discovered a way.  We're certainly going to review everything that we did post-election and see how we can do it better.

 

Q:  I wonder if you'd give us an update on a number from a couple of weeks and say -- explain what it says about how far along you are.  This says absentee ballot request forms -- 340,000 had been sent out as of mid-July --

 

ABELL:  Okay.

 

Q:  -- as compared to 250,000 in 2000.

 

ABELL:  Right.

 

Q:  So --

 

ABELL:  You know, I looked at those numbers, and it was unfulfilled.  So we went back and looked.  And you know, my question's probably your question.  I got 6 million people out there; 250(,000) 350,000 didn't sound right.

 

What that -- that was an attempt to answer a question of how many have you sent out to overseas voters and voting organizations overseas.  It doesn't talk about how many were handed out at mobilization sites.  It doesn't talk about how many were issued to military units and, you know, ships and brigades and wings and squadrons out there.

 

And so I asked for that number, and the number I have is that we have pushed out, so far this year -- looks like about 4.2 million federal postcard ballot applications.  And then, of course, we also have the website, where now individuals can just print off the thing without having to go get the hard copy one.

 

So I'm very pleased with that, and I think that -- I think the earlier question -- it was a direct answer to a direct question, but it may not have talked -- told the story that we thought was essential.

 

Q:  (Off mike) -- there's an absentee ballot request form, and then there's an absentee ballot, and then there's a -- what --

 

ABELL:  Sure.  There's a request form where the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine fills it out and sends it in to his or her local election official.  That does two things for them.  It registers them to vote, should they not already be registered, and it requests that that local official send them an absentee ballot.

 

Now you recognize that the ballot from, you know, Clover Bottom, Tennessee, and the ballot from New York City is different.  So this one says you -- "Please send me our/my local precinct's ballot."  And the voting officials do that.  As soon as their ballots are settled -- you know, there are still primaries going on, still races deciding who's going to be in them. As soon as that ballot is settled, then they will mail it to the voter overseas in response to that application.

 

So we've got a request going in:  Please register me and send me a ballot.  We have a ballot going back.  Then the voter votes and sends the ballot back one more time.

 

Q:  But that's the number we don't know, how many people actually have ballots -- you know, ballot applications.

 

MR. ABELL:  Local states -- local precincts and states can know how many requests they got and how many they filled.  They can also know how many people actually voted.  What they probably won't be able to sort out is how many folks were multiple, as opposed to how many -- did I request a ballot and then decide not to vote -- those aren't knowable with today's technology.

 

Q:  But aside from those local ballots, you have federal generic ballots for --

ABELL:  It's a federal ballot that is essentially a write-in ballot where you --

 

Q:  A federal ballot, that they must recognize if they wish to --

 

ABELL:  Yes, they accept that --

 

Q:  -- (inaudible) -- on a local.

 

ABELL:  Right.

 

Q:  I see.

 

Q:  And that's what the 4.2 million is?  Or is that the ballot applications?

 

ABELL:  No, the 4.2 million are the applications.  That's what starts the whole thing.  And again, our folks can get those off the Internet as well, so that they don't need one of these 4.2 million at all.

 

Yes, sir?

 

Q:  Well, just to clarify that a little further, and then I had another question.  But you said you pushed that many out.

 

ABELL:  Yes.

 

Q:  That doesn't mean that 4.2 million have found their way into hands of potential voters, it means that they're out there, if they go to the officer on their ship or the leader of their platoon or --

 

ABELL:  Absolutely right, that's where they are.  They're with voting assistance officers, they're with platoon leaders, they're with squadron commanders around the world.

 

Q:  Okay, then --

 

Q:  And then you're doing all the civilians -- I'm sorry --

 

Q:  That's okay.

 

Q:  -- are some at embassies?  Or where do the --

 

ABELL:  Embassies, consulates, absolutely.  And there are overseas voters groups, as you might imagine, and they have some as well.

 

Q:  Another question I had, to get back to the question about partisan activity, there was a report, I think earlier this week, out of a Navy Exchange in Jacksonville, Florida, where there were folks who were concerned that people running a registration table encouraging uniformed people to register to vote were a little bit zealous on behalf of a particular candidate, and that -- including officers who were at the table in their off hours helping to register voters, but were engaging -- saying, you know, "This candidate needs your support; sign up to vote."  And perhaps junior enlisted feeling some pressure in that regard.

 

Is there any kind of -- along with all this you're doing to encourage people to register to vote, is there any kind of reminder going out to officers and enlisted members about the restrictions on partisan activity, that we want to encourage people to vote, but we don't want to encourage them to vote in any particular way?

 

ABELL:  I'm not familiar with the incident that you talked about at Naval Station Jacksonville.

 

But yes, the department has issued guidance.  They do this every election year.  It actually emanates from the public affairs office.  It's not quite my lane, but I know it's out there.  I've seen it -- emphasizing to local commanders and to their public affairs offices what's acceptable and what's not acceptable as far as partisan activities.

 

Yes, sir?

 

Q:  One of the things you mentioned which has -- does often become a factor in this is late primaries and lawsuit challenges to ballots.  Are you monitoring where those are in the U.S. that might present a problem?

 

ABELL:  Absolutely.  The FVAP office monitors that all the time.  There have been a couple of news stories earlier this year you may have heard, Pennsylvania and Georgia specifically, where the ballots were late getting out and the state -- we first went to the state and said, "Okay, you're going to need to give our absentee voters a longer time to vote."  And the state initially didn't agree. Ultimately, our partners at Justice sued them, and in both cases the judges ruled that yes, the state had to take extraordinary measures. They had to leave the window open longer for the ballots.  They had to pay for -- the state had to pay for overnight express mail return of ballots and so forth.

 

So we are constantly vigilant in that regard, and our partners at Department of Justice are aggressive when we bring the need for action to their attention.  And the states are generally cooperative.  Those were two examples of where the state chose not to.

 

Yes, ma'am?

 

Q:  How many voting assistance officers do you have military- wide, and have you boosted the number recently?

 

ABELL:  Ooh.  You know, I've never asked that question.  I expect "oodles" is not precise enough for you.

 

I believe the ratio is like 1 to 30 or something like that, but I have no idea.  They are appointed locally.  The commands are told, "You must appoint them."  They are given direction that they are not to be the -- you know, the junior officer or the junior noncommissioned officer who doesn't really understand.  And the voting assistance officers are -- those who are designated as voting assistance officers must be rated on that in their efficiency reports, after the election, on how they did.

 

But I don't know how many there are.  I don't have any way of collecting that information, frankly.

 

Q:  Is there an effort to boost -- to increase the number from previous elections?

 

ABELL:  I don't think so.  I think the idea has always been that they're supposed to be in the commands, everywhere.  What we've tried to do is make sure that we have given them training and support materials, so that there's no doubt that they have everything they need to do their job.

 

Okay, folks, we can get one more, I think.  Yes, sir?

 

Q:  Do you have any figures on how many military votes -- absentee military votes there were in the primaries this year?

 

MR. ABELL:  I do not.

 

Thank you.

 

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