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DOD News Briefing with Pam Mitchell from the Pentagon

Presenters: Pam Mitchell, Acting Director, Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program
September 05, 2012

             COMMANDER LESLIE HULL-RYDE:  Good afternoon, everyone.  This afternoon, the acting director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, Ms. Pam Mitchell, will be joining us to talk about some of the initiatives that they have implemented for this election cycle.  As this is Ms. Mitchell's inaugural briefing in the press briefing room, I would ask, please, that you would identify yourselves by your name and the outlet that you represent, please.  Thank you. 

            MS. PAM MITCHELL:  Good afternoon.  Voting assistance for our absentee military and overseas citizen voters has never been better.  Why do I say that?  I say it because of all the things that we've put in place by way of outreach and tools to help them register, obtain a ballot, and exercise their vote. 

            We have online wizards.  What are online wizards?  Well, think of anything that you do, you go online, you have dropdown menus, and things that literally walk you through step-by-step how to do something, in this case, registering for and obtaining an absentee ballot.  The online wizards even go so far as to put in the right address on the mailing envelope that you can then print out and mail in. 

            We use social media.  We use Twitter.  We use Facebook, especially so that we can reach out to the largest military population, which is those 18- to 24- to 25-year-olds.  We have a mobile website we just unveiled last week so that using a smartphone or a tablet from anywhere you may be, you can obtain access to our information and our tools. 

            We use e-mail blasts starting last January to every member with a dot-mil e-mail address to remind them how they can register to vote and that it's time to vote.  And, in fact, as we are here today, we have an e-mail blast going out right now. 

            We have a call center that operates five days a week from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. that can be used by voters worldwide to obtain assistance on how to file an absentee ballot.  It can also be used by state and local election officials for questions.  And we have voting assistance officers who've been around for years, and we have installation voter assistance offices which were prescribed by the 2009 MOVE Act (Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment). 

            Now, you may have heard that there was an I.G. [Department of Defense Inspector General] report just released that calls attention in particular to the installation voter assistance offices.  The contact information that they used to try to establish contact with the installation voter assistance offices very simply was outdated.  Why was it outdated?  Because in a military environment, things change.  Military members are reassigned.  They may be reassigned to other posts; they may be reassigned on the same post or base.  Things change.  We have joint bases that grow.  We have other kinds of things that happen so that in any military environment, whether the subject be voting or anything else, phone numbers change and e-mail addresses change. 

            We certainly agree with the I.G. that the most important thing we can do is to find the most effective way to maintain assistance for all of our absentee voters, and we are absolutely continued -- I'm sorry, we are absolutely committed to continue working with all stakeholders, including the Congress, to make sure that voting assistance remains the best it's ever been. 

            I spent 25 years in the Army, and I voted absentee.  And I can tell you that I only wish that when I was in uniform, I had access to the tools and resources that are available to our men and women today. 

            May I have the first question?  Please. 

            Q:  Hi, it's Jennifer Griffin with Fox News.  The Military Voter Protection Project says that absentee ballot requests are down significantly, particularly in some of the swing states like Ohio.  They gave some numbers.  Can you explain why the absentee ballot requests are down this year? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  Well, let me talk about what we know.  We maintain a record of downloads from our website of the Federal Postcard Application (FPCA), which is in itself a request to register to vote, as well as a request for an absentee ballot.  If we look back at the last presidential election, 2004, for which there was a sitting incumbent in an uncontested primary in one of the parties, we are essentially running neck-and-neck with the numbers of FPCAs downloaded.  So between 2004 and 2012, we are very close to running the same amount of downloads.  

            Now, we do not monitor the universe of the ways in which people may register to vote or obtain ballots, because while they can get them through our website, they can also talk to voting assistance officers, either at the unit or installation level.  They can go directly to states and localities, and there are also private parties who maintain websites to offer these services.  And I've talked to any number of folks over the last couple of months who, in fact, do go to different places to get this information. 

            Q:  So do you reject criticism that the department has not done enough to help the military voting population get these ballots and vote? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  I strongly believe that voting assistance is the best that it has ever been.  

            Next, please?  Yes? 

            Q: (Inaudible) with Stars and Stripes.  Back to that I.G. report.  Is there any reason to believe that the troops have those new updated numbers?  I'm sure if there's a forwarding number, some machine that tells folks that number has moved, the I.G. folks would have -- would have called back.  Is it possible that none of the troops are going to be able to get through, either? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  That's a great question, and let me tell you what we've done about that.  We have personally called all 221 offices, and we are certain that the information posted to our website is correct, with e-mail and phone number information and, in many cases, actual locations of where these offices are on an installation.  We are committed, between now and the general election, of calling each of the 221 offices every single week to make sure that we have the most updated information.  

            Yes? 

            Q:  Hi, Andrew Tilghman with the Military Times.  In the I.G. report, it appeared that the department indicated that it really didn't think that these offices were really all that effective and that might be one of the reasons why they hadn't been prioritized.  I'm wondering, is that -- you've mentioned social media a number of times.  Is it your sense that these offices are kind of, you know, prescribed by Congress as they are, that these offices are not really cost-effective or not as efficient for today's -- particularly the younger voters? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  We're committed to evaluating all of the tools in our arsenal, if you will, to include those offices to determine, what are the most effective things going forward, what are the best ways to reach our absentee voters?  And we will work with the Congress and with all affected stakeholders, including the services, to continue to take a look at that and refine the way in which we conduct outreach to absentee voters. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  If I could follow up, though, what is the current assessment?  Do you feel like those offices are an effective tool? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  I feel that those offices are an effective tool for some voters.  So that is to say that they are one of many tools in the arsenal, and our job is to provide assistance to a multitude of absentee voters.  So are they effective for some voters?  Yes, they are.  But we will continue, as I said, to evaluate the best methods of outreach across the universe of the voters that we support. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  Can you just outline for a military voter what is the process they should go through between now and the election date?  What are the deadlines they need to meet to get an absentee ballot?  Just simply outline, what's the easiest way to do this, if you're a military voter? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  Okay.  Well, they have a number of options.  They can certainly visit with their unit voting assistance officer.  They can visit with an installation voter assistance office.  Or they can go online to our website.  They can also go directly to state or local jurisdiction websites as available.  They can use any of those methods to obtain a request to register to vote, as well as to obtain an absentee ballot.  And, again, our wizard will actually walk them through the process. 

            As for deadlines, across the board, it would probably be a good general statement to say about 30 days before the election.  But I would rather refer you to our website, where we list the actual information from all of the states. 

            Q:  What is your website? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  It's fvap.gov. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  What's your -- what's your metric for success when it comes to Election Day?  If we do see that the -- the absentee ballot numbers are lower or even on par with 2004, is that a failure for the office? 

            MS. MITCHELL:  What we are focused on is providing assistance.  That means making sure that people have the information, the tools, and the resources that they need to decide to register to vote and to request an absentee ballot and then to cast their vote.  At the end of the day, what we're trying to do is to make sure that they have everything they need, again, to exercise that right to vote. 

            It is a personal responsibility to actually execute that.  So we don't believe that, for example, at this point in time, that voter registration is an accurate way to depict whether or not voter assistance is effective. 

            Do I have another question?  

            CMDR HULL-RYDE:  Ms. Mitchell, thank you for coming today to answer any questions.  If you have any questions, please feel free, as Ms. Mitchell said, to take a look at their website, which is www.fvap.gov, the Federal Assistance -- or, excuse me, Federal Voting Assistance Program.  Thank you. 

            MS. MITCHELL:  Thank you.

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