By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 22, 2008 - As voters go to the polls to decide the U.S. presidential election and various federal, state and local contests Nov. 4, soldiers of Task Force Mountain will be making their voices heard, many of them thanks to their unit voting assistance officers. With higher-than-average voter turnout expected in this year's election, soldiers are especially concerned with casting their ballots so they can make a difference, said Army Sgt. Aaron Shumaker, 10th Mountain Division voting assistance officer, who noted that many soldiers 18 to 20 years old here had registered to vote for the first time.
"They realize that who they vote for directly affects them and their job, and their mission," he said.
Task Force Mountain officials require that all units of 25 soldiers or more have designated voting assistance officers to help soldiers register to vote and request absentee ballots. As part of the effort to get soldiers registered, the task force's voting assistance team has held numerous drives in the past month, including "Iraq the Vote," an outdoor concert here by the 10th Mountain Division's rock band.
Voting assistance officers distributed Standard Form 76, which lets soldiers' home states know they are deployed and serves as a request for an absentee ballot.
Shumaker said interest in this year's election is high, "especially with the younger demographic, which is thrilling, when you think about it."
"I think that also, being here in Iraq, it's a different perspective on things, because we're over here defending [the Iraqi citizens'] right to vote, and they are holding elections also, so it's not something that soldiers over here, I think, take lightly," Shumaker said.
Besides taking part in the democratic process, Shumaker said, the ability to vote while overseas gives soldiers a sense of being connected to events back in the United States.
"They are excited when they fill out the SF-76; they can't wait to get their absentee ballot back in the mail and send it off. They feel like they are actually a part of things going on back home," he said.
Shumaker noted that many soldiers were unaware they needed to request a ballot to take part.
"Many soldiers were under the misconception that their ballot would find them when they got here – they would have filled out an absentee ballot request in the past, and think they were automatically going to get one this year," he said. "Luckily, for the most part, through our drives and things, we were able to rectify the situation for the majority of the ones that wanted to vote."
Absentee ballots are mailed out anywhere from two months to a week before the election, Shumaker said, but if a soldier doesn't receive one in time, there is still a Plan B. Soldiers can fill out Standard Form 186, a write-in an absentee ballot, which must be postmarked by Election Day.
"What most states instruct soldiers to do is to go ahead and fill in the write-in absentee ballot, and if, after that time, your regular ballot comes in the mail, to go ahead and fill that out and send that in, because that ballot will supersede your write-in absentee ballot. So you are covered either way," he said.
With close contests predicted in many states, the stakes this year are especially high.
"We learned from the 2000 election that every vote is important," Shumaker said. "Every vote does count, and it can be decisive."
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves in the Multinational Division Center Public Affairs Office.)