Your vote counts! But voting as a military member can be challenging–especially if you are stationed overseas and even more so if you are forward deployed. How do members of the Armed Forces participate in the voting process when they are not physically present in their home district or where they are currently registered to vote?
There are several steps you may need to take in order to vote from afar; like voting at home you must be registered, complete the official forms to vote absentee, mail them in before the deadline, and await the results of the election.
But it can be difficult to determine where to register and how to vote absentee. Here is a quick guide for members of the military and their families to use in order to make sure your voice is heard and counted.
Does Your Unit Have A Voting Officer?
If you are stationed at an overseas base, you will likely be assigned to a unit or command that has at least one Voting Officer or voting representative who assists members of the unit–this is normally an “additional duty” and not the main work of a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, etc.
Voting officers, sometimes known as Voting Assistance Officers, can provide you and your co-workers with the information you need to vote absentee or vote by mail. The Voting Officer may be someone in your unit (depending on size) or there may be someone among your command support staff who has this additional duty.
If you’ve never heard of a unit voting officer before, you will learn that this additional duty operates somewhat like the function of a notary public in that they are always ready to help, but such services aren’t in demand except during certain times.
Ask your command support staff who your current voting officer is and you can get started voting by mail or voting absentee based on the current election year’s deadlines and related issues.
You can also search for a voting assistance officer using a search tool provided by the federal government.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP)
Online, it’s possible to get help via the Federal Voting Assistance program, starting with the website’s offer to help you register and request an absentee ballot by filling out the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA).
You must submit this to your local election office by the deadlines listed on the official site. The FVAP program is run by the Federal government and is not a third-party website. No personal data is collected or maintained at this website.
According to the official site, using the Federal Post Card Application “ensures that your state will send your ballot to you at least 45 days before the election,” and the FVAP official site warns this is “a protection not guaranteed when using other forms.”
Your family members can also vote absentee using FVAP resources. When you fill out your FPCA, you will be asked to confirm your status as follows:
- Member of the Uniformed Services
- Merchant Marine on active duty
- Spouse or dependent of a member of the Uniformed Services
- Spouse or Dependent of a Merchant Marine on active duty
- S. citizen living outside the country, intending to return
- S. citizen living outside the country, intent to return is uncertain
- S. citizen living outside the country, and has never lived in the United States
Military spouses and dependent children of voting age can vote absentee in any federal election using FVAP resources or other vote-by-mail/absentee voting methods approved for those stationed overseas. Contact information for FVAP includes:
- Call – Toll-free: 1-800-438-VOTE (8683) or Click Here to learn about Toll Free International Numbers
- DOD FVAP Facebook Page – Like them on Facebook for election updates
- FVAP Twitter Page – Follow them on Twitter for election updates
Remember, using FVAP resources makes it possible to register to vote and request your absentee ballot in one step.
Can I Vote?
The National Association of Secretaries of State operates a non-partisan website called Can I Vote? This website was created by state election officials to help voters learn where and how they can cast their votes including absentee ballots and early voting.
You will be asked to select the state where you have registered to vote or will be registering to vote. You select your state from a pull-down menu and you’ll be taken to the official page with deadlines, requirements, and other information about voting early or absentee that apply to your state.
Things To Remember About Voting Absentee Or Early Voting
Voters are not allowed to have more than one legal voting address or residence on file at any one time. Your voting residence is NOT your home of record. You should declare your voting residence as the same address that is listed on your Leave & Earnings Statement–your home of record is where you technically entered military service from (your hometown), but your voting address is your CURRENT legal address.
There are no automatic updates–like DEERS, you will have to manually correct your voting residence/state of residence when you move. You may or may not be able to change your voting residence remotely depending on circumstances. This is a detail you should definitely explore before you deploy, get reassigned, or PCS to a new duty location.
There are no standardized national laws that address vote-by-mail, voting early, or absentee voting across the board. Individual state laws dictate the procedures, deadlines, and requirements of voting including vote-by-mail, etc. You will need to become familiar with your state’s requirements before you apply.
U.S. citizens born overseas who have never resided in the U.S. may not be able to vote absentee, according to USA.gov. If you need to know if this applies to you, review the rules of the state where your parent or legal guardian last called home.
If you have become what the government defines as an “overseas citizen,” your voting residence is the address in the state you last resided in the United States. This is true even when the applicant:
- No longer owns property in that state
- Is not sure whether they are going to return to that state
- Has a previous address no longer recognized as a residential address
Military spouses may:
- Use the same residence as the service member, even if they never lived there
- Keep a current, established residence
- Take the appropriate steps to establish a new residence
It is crucial to keep in mind that you must submit an absentee ballot in time to return it by your state’s deadline. There is a provision for those who don’t make that deadline–the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot can also be used to vote.
Military Voting History
Military voting was debated before there was even a United States or a Constitution. Ultimately, laws governing the participation of military voters varied from state to state. During the American Revolution there were a few instances of soldier’s votes being counted despite not being physically present to vote. Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the issue of military voting went largely unaddressed as the United States was engaged in only two major conflicts —the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War. Since these wars affected relatively few troops there was not a strong demand to make military absentee voting easier, or even possible in some states.
The Civil War and the 1864 Presidential Election
The Civil War drastically changed the need to improve military absentee voting with more than 10 percent of the population serving in the military. Laws governing the participation of military voters varied from state to state, but in 18 Northern states, it was possible for military men to vote using absentee procedures. For the remaining Northern states President Abraham Lincoln exercised his power as commander-in-chief and called for a cessation of military operations prior to the election to allow military personnel from affected states the time to go home and vote.
The 1864 election featured new legal mechanisms—remote and absentee voting—that allowed military personnel serving away from home to participate in the electoral process.
By 1918, 18 states had adopted laws designed explicitly to enfranchise soldiers whose military service prevented them from voting in their home precinct. However, 4.7 million soldiers deployed in World War I during the 1918 election were not able to vote as the Department of War determined the process would interfere with military operations.
World War II
During World War II Congress attempted to address the non-uniformity of state laws prior to the 1942 mid-term election via the Soldier Voting Act which required states to create a federal ballot that allowed soldiers to vote for the four major federal offices – a President, Vice-President, Senator, and Representative. States could also opt to add state or local races. Unfortunately, the law was enacted too close to the election and did not address state voter registration and eligibility. It is estimated fewer than 28,000 votes were validly cast.
Post World War II
After World War II ended, efforts continued to make a national voting procedure that would address the needs of all military personnel overseas however, the logistics of voting, state election laws and ballot transit issues still kept overseas citizens and servicemen from being able to vote.
Finally, in 1986 Congress passed The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, commonly referred to as UOCAVA. This Act required states to provide for absentee registration and voting by uniformed services and overseas voters and established a federal voting assistance program, FVAP, to facilitate absentee registration and voting by eligible voters.
In 2010, The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) amended UOCAVA and other statutes by providing greater protections for Service Members, their eligible family members and other overseas citizens. Among other provisions, the MOVE Act requires States to send absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters at least 45 days before federal elections.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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