Absentee Voting an 'Obstacle Course' for Military and Overseas Citizens

Pointer  Online Extra

March 2009



By Tom Intorcio


It has never been easy for Americans overseas to vote.

In June 1952 during the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman wrote to Congress asking for emergency legislation to address election calendar obstacles and other legal defects to make it possible for members of the military to cast absentee ballots that could reliably be counted in November.

"Any such legislation by Congress should be temporary, since it should be possible to make all the necessary changes in state laws before the congressional elections of 1954," Truman wrote.

More than 50 years later, military and overseas voters must navigate myriad state and local regulations that often delay receipt and processing of both their registration forms and absentee ballots. Outmoded systems and unpredictable domestic and international mail service also hamper overseas voters.

In 2006, only 26.5 percent of the roughly 1 million absentee ballots requested by military and overseas Americans were cast and counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.  In the same year, 35,000 military and overseas citizen ballots were returned to local election officials as undeliverable. 

Congress passed the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) in 1986 to help eligible members of the armed services, their families and other citizens overseas to vote. There are two key provisions of the law that apply to states:

  • States must permit absent uniformed services voters, their spouses and dependents who no longer maintain a U.S. residence to register absentee and to vote by absentee ballot in all federal elections (overseas voters are eligible to register absentee in the jurisdiction of their last residence).
  • States must accept and process any valid voter registration application from an absent uniformed services voter or overseas voter if the application is received not less than 30 days before the election.


In 2001, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that the absentee voting act covers 6.1 million citizens, including 2.7 million active military personnel and their relatives. 

In a new report from the Pew Center on the States, researchers found that one-third of all states do not provide enough time for military personnel stationed overseas to vote and as many as half of all states need to improve their absentee voting process to ensure the votes of servicemen and women abroad will be counted.  The report, No Time to Vote: Challenges Facing America's Overseas Military Voters, is the first detailed public analysis of states' voting systems for overseas military personnel.

Federal surveys of military personnel show these voters struggle with an onerous and complex process. Among military personnel who reported not voting in 2004, 30 percent said they were not able to vote because their ballots never arrived or arrived too late. Another 28 percent said they did not know how to get a ballot, found the process too complicated or were unable to register. 

At the core of the problem is the fact that the military postal system cannot deliver absentee ballots to military and overseas voters quickly enough to allow adequate time for completion and return.

The report notes on average, states do not send out blank absentee ballots until 35 to 40 days before the election. This leaves little to no room for delay or error, as standard military mail takes 24 to 36 days to go round-trip.

No Time to Vote indicates that 16 states and the District of Columbia do not provide enough time to vote for military personnel stationed overseas.  These states send absentee ballots after the date necessary for military voters to meet all required deadlines. Three states are "at risk" for not allowing military personnel overseas enough time to vote. They provide only five or fewer additional days beyond the number necessary to cast a ballot. This limited cushion is inadequate to ensure against unforeseen delays. Six states provide enough time to vote only if overseas military personnel return their completed ballots by fax or e-mail—a requirement that raises concerns about accessibility, privacy and security of electronic transmission.

The U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program recommends a minimum of 45 days between the date the ballot is mailed to the voter and the voted ballot return deadline. Only 10 states mail ballots to all military and overseas voters 45 days or more before all elections.      

Providing a minimum of 45 days transit time is one critical step states have taken to improve the system. Leveraging electronic transmission is another. Thirty-two states authorize local elections offices to send blank ballots to overseas voters by either fax or e-mail.  In 2008, at least seven states (California, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia) enacted legislation to authorize some form of electronic transmission to expedite the voting process.

In 2009, an increasing number of bills are being introduced that would incorporate electronic mail or online systems to assist military and overseas voters. In Washington state, Senator Steve Hobbs recently introduced SB 5522 to create an Internet-based voting program for military and overseas voters. Requested by the secretary of state, the bill calls for a web program that must protect secrecy of the ballot in addition to being a secure protocol.  Hobbs is a member of the Army National Guard Reserve and served active duty as a member of the Army in Iraq and Kosovo. Voting from Iraq and the difficulty it posed motivated him to sponsor the bill.

"Our men and women are fighting for our freedoms, yet the current system is denying them the opportunity to cast a ballot that will likely be counted. We need to do better," he says. "When you're in combat, mail delivery is never guaranteed. In Baghdad, mail was delivered to the Green Zone and then routed to Camp Victory. If the truck carrying the mail was ambushed or a road was shut down after an enemy attack, mail could be lost or destroyed. The result is the same—ballots that never make it.

The bill has since been referred to the state's Government Operation and Elections Committee, which held a hearing on Feb. 9. Katie Blinn, assistant director of elections in the Washington secretary of state's office, summarized the bill's intent: "We're trying to reach all military and overseas voters, but especially those in remote locations of the world for whom mail deliver is not an option."

A companion version was introduced in the Washington House and was unanimously reported out by its State Government Committee, and is pending in the House appropriations committee.

State Representative Sherry Appleton, the bill's sponsor, says the bill is needed to give voters enough time to complete the paperwork and vote within a relatively narrow window on the election calendar.

"Washington's primary election was recently moved forward from the third week in September to Aug. 19, which gave voters extra time (beyond the minimal 45 days)," she says. "We're all better connected to the Internet today. This legislation has great merit not only for the military, but for civilian contractors and overseas citizens as well, and it has no fiscal impact."

Alabama's legislature is currently considering legislation to permit Internet-based voting similar to a successful pilot program used by military voters from Okaloosa County, Fla., last November. In Colorado and Hawaii legislation has been introduced to create a pilot program to study the feasibility of Internet voting for military and overseas voters. Colorado House Bill 1205  and Hawaii SB 631 would require that a pilot program be implemented in time for the 2010 general election.

Meanwhile, legislatures in Connecticut and Virginia are considering legislation to incorporate e-mail into the ballot transit process. A number of states currently authorize blank ballots to be e-mailed to a service member, but require the signed ballot to be returned either in original form or by facsimile, for instance Florida, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Tom Intorcio tracks election issues for NCSL.  

 131 Million, March 2009