October 29, 2011

October 29, 2011 | Commentary on Rule of Law, Legal Issues

Cooking the Military Voting Books

It's become a common tactic for President Obama and his appointees: When the data shows how inept you are or how dangerous your policies are, cook the books and create new data.

They did it with the stimulus package, Obamacare and the debt ceiling. Now they're doing it with our military voters.

After being criticized repeatedly for its failure to protect military voters in 2010, the administration can't stand another election cycle where pesky military members ask for their right to vote to be enforced. So it must be time to cook the books.

That's what appears to be happening in a report recently released by the Department of Defense and its Federal Voting Assistance Program office.

The FVAP is responsible for administering the federal law that guarantees the right of overseas American military personnel and their families (as well as American civilians) to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections.

In that report, the FVAP claims that the overall participation of active duty military voters through both in-person and absentee voting increased from 24 percent in 2006 (16 percent by absentee ballot) to 29 percent in 2010 (18 percent by absentee ballot).

The FVAP claims that is a "remarkable" 21 percent increase in military voter participation.

In addition, the FVAP's report indicates 34 percent of military spouses voted in the 2010 election. Of that 34 percent, the FVAP claims 14 percent of spouses voted by absentee ballot and 20 percent voted in person.

Taken together, the FVAP's report suggests approximately 425,000 active duty military members and their spouses voted by absentee ballot in the 2010 election.

Yet data and reports from nonpartisan groups, as well as the independent U.S. Election Assistance Commission, do not support such an increase. For instance, a recently released report by the EAC shows that only 100,557 of 2.5 million military members and their spouses voted by absentee ballot -- that is, 4 percent of the total military voting population (a prior Heritage study found a 4.6 percent voting rate in 24 states).

What accounts for the difference?

Unlike the EAC data, which relies on actual absentee ballots sent and received by state officials, the FVAP reaches its conclusions based on survey responses from 15,037 military members and their spouses, although it sent out more than 123,376 surveys.

The low response rate is the first red flag about the credibility of the FVAP's report -- a fact that the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly emphasized to the FVAP.

In 2010, the GAO criticized the FVAP's reporting methodology because "FVAP does not conduct a non-response bias analysis" that the Office of Management and Budget has said is "a necessary step in determining whether survey findings are biased.

Not conducting such an analysis limits data reliability." The report was aptly named, "DOD Can Strengthen Evaluation of Its Absentee Voting Assistance Program." Yes, it can (but it hasn't).

Low survey response rates are not the only problem. The sample that responded does not accurately reflect the overall military population. For example, approximately 25 percent of the surveys were completed by senior officers and their spouses, even though they represent only 12 percent of the actual military population, thus giving a biased and skewed view of the voting experiences of the military.

Another significant problem appears to be the low response rates from combat troops, who have the greatest difficulties in voting. In fact, the response rate from members of the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard is nearly 70 percent higher than the response rate from those serving in the Army and Marine Corps. Yet the Army and Marines make up over 50 percent of the armed forces of the United States.

Obviously, whether a military member is in the field or on the front lines in Afghanistan, as compared to sitting at a desk in the Pentagon, can have a significant effect on the ability to receive, vote and mail back an absentee ballot. Yet the FVAP report doesn't appear to account for this critical difference, as well as many others.

No one should be surprised that the administration would cook the books to achieve its political agenda. It's just surprising that it would do so on the backs of our men and women in uniform, who remain the largest disenfranchised group of voters in America.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

First appeared in The Washington Examiner