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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Active military get first shot at Trump vs. Clinton



The wait to vote in the presidential election is already over for thousands of Tampa Bay area residents.

While most Floridians still have weeks until they can weigh in on Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, thousands of voters who call the Bay Area home but are on military bases or overseas are already getting their ballots. That is because late last week, local elections officials were required to ship ballots to military and overseas personnel to assure it reaches them and can be returned in time to be counted.Combined, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties say they’ve already shipped out almost 10,000 ballots.
How many were shipped out statewide will be tallied later this week. In 2012, more than 65,000 ballots went out to military and overseas voters.

Some of those ballots will come back really fast, said Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett. Unlike traditional vote-by-mail ballots, voters overseas and in the military can fax their ballots in on a secure line to local supervisors of elections. Bennett said he’s certain some of the more than 1,000 ballots his office sent out will start arriving to be counted by mid-week.

Since 2009, the state and federal governments have been trying to improve voting systems for military personnel and people living overseas by having a standardized process. Previously state’s did not have a uniform system of sending out ballots. Many waited weeks longer to get ballots out, making it harder for active duty soldiers to get their votes back in. The Federal Voting Assistance Program has also created an online assistant to help walk military and overseas voters through the process of signing up to get a ballot, and getting it back to their home counties to be counted in time.

Still, despite those steps and public outreach campaigns, thousands upon thousands of potential voters still will never get a say in the election, said Don Inbody, a Texas State University lecturer who has studied military voting patterns for nearly two decades. He said nationwide there is evidence that suggests up to 250,000 people in the military and overseas started requesting ballots but for whatever reason were not able to navigate the system to get a ballot counted.

“There are still many barriers,” Inbody said.

He said it starts with their youth. Most active duty military are under 30 years of age - a group that historically has low turnout rates already. But Inbody said being put on a military base and having to track down the right paperwork and get it filed back home adds to the difficulties. Most alarming he said is that even after doing all of that, soldiers who get their ballots then may not ship them back in time.

He said also by being overseas or on a military base, people don’t have the same social cues that an election is going on. They don’t see the same television ads, yard signs and atmosphere back home that reminds people to vote.

“Overseas those social cues drop to close to zero,” Inbody said.

The overall result is that there are people overseas fighting for the right to vote for others, who they themselves will not be able to take part in.

Last week, the Federal Voting Assistance Program released a new report showing that 2.6 million non-military personnel overseas could vote, but few do. The voting rate in 2014 was just 4 percent according to the report.

“While we can expect to see an increase in the overall voting rates for the 2016 Presidential Election, we need to understand whether the overall rate for 2014 is due to low awareness of how to vote absentee or if it is related to other factors,” said Matt Boehner, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Those lost potential votes from military personnel could hurt Trump if a poll released last week by the Military Times and Syracuse University is accurate. Trump was winning nearly 38 percent of the vote among 2,207 active duty service members surveyed. Clinton was third with 16 percent, trailing even Libertarian Gary Johnson, who was the choice of 37 percent.

But Inbody said its a mistake to assume military voters are all Republican. Sure, officers veer that way. But he said enlisted members of the military are more diverse and look a lot like the rest of the U.S. population demographically.

[Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2016 10:34am]


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