Under pressure from Congress, some states are making it easier for overseas troops to vote
This year’s midterm elections come ten years after Congress passed new laws and some states adopted more technology to make it easier for military members to vote, and that’s having a positive effect on getting troops' ballots counted.
In the 2008 election, 91% of all absentee ballots from civilians were returned successfully, but only 50% of absentee ballots from overseas military members were counted.
That led Congress to pass a law that set requirements for states and their voting authorities – usually counties – to make voting easier for military members. The measures require ballots to be ready 45 days before an election.
“The primary purpose for that was to allow the state to get an absentee ballot overseas, give the person time to fill it out, and then have it mailed home,” said Donald Inbody, a Navy Veteran and the author of The Soldier Vote: War, Politics, and the Ballot in America.
Inbody said lead time is important, especially because states are very inconsistent on when ballots have to be returned.
“Some states allow ballots to come back 10 days after the election, others require it to be there the day before or the day of the election,” Inbody said. “It’s a confusion of rules that make it difficult for the average soldier or sailor to get it figured out.”
The 2010 election saw an almost immediate improvement, with only 33% of overseas ballots coming back too late. But a Congressional committee found that number still too high.
Nowadays, states are supposed to mail paper ballots sooner. And a handful have implemented online voting for overseas troops. Missouri features an online portal that allows troops to receive and submit their ballots electronically.
“If a military or overseas voter is in a hostile zone, they can utilize the portal to return their ballot," said Chrissy Peters, Missouri’s Director of Elections. "If they are choosing to receive their ballot via email, they can return it with that method as well."
While not all states go to that length to help military members vote, the latest numbers show the percentage of military absentee ballot rejections is down to single digits.
Making it easier for military members to vote is generally popular among politicians, even among Republicans who generally support tightening voting access for the general population in the name of security.
“Clearly, when someone has been potentially sent to one of the places in the world by Uncle Sam to defend the freedoms of those of us still in Missouri, we need to go the extra mile to make sure they can participate,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.
At the same time Ashcroft has improved online voting access for some military members, he also has supported a more stringent photo ID policy for civilians to vote in person. And he opposes additional federal mandates to improve ballot access for the armed services.
“I think the state of Missouri does stuff better than the federal government. The federal government seems to excel at breaking stuff and wasting money,” Ashcroft said.
While it’s easier for military members to vote, and their absentee ballots are getting back on time more often, that isn’t changing the percentage of service members voting.
According to the Defense Department, 47% of troops voted in the 2020 presidential election, compared to 74% of civilians with similar demographics.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program, which provides resources to help troops navigate the election process, looks to improve those numbers with a variety of programs. It prints materials, maintains an online presence, and identifies and trains voting assistance officers who are stationed at military installations around the world.
“We see that folks that actually avail themselves of either the guidebook, the website, the voting assistance officers have a much higher chance of successfully casting a ballot in the election," said Scott Weidmann, the program's deputy director.
Advancements in access to voting for military members doesn’t exist in a vacuum apart from civilian voting, according to Inbody. He points out that the whole idea of an absentee ballot didn’t exist until the Civil War, when Congress wanted to let soldiers on the front lines vote.
“Using the military, the experience they see in the military to pass those rights on to other American citizens, - there’s certainly historical precedent for that,” Inobdy said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Donald Inbody. He is a Navy veteran, not an Army veteran.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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