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Some states are expanding online access to help troops vote

milvote1.jpg
Todd Maki
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U.S. Air Force
Master Sgt. Blayne Ralston, right, speaks with Tracey Hall, installation voting program manager, and Michael Glover, Airman and Family Readiness Center causality assistance representative, during an Armed Forces Voting Week event at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., June 29.

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. Specifically requiring ballots be ready 45 days before the 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. 

That lead time is important, especially as states are inconsistent on when ballots have to be returned to be counted, according to Inbody.

“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 to still be 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 for electronic transmission of a ballot to the troops, and the opportunity to send it back the same way.

“If a military or overseas voter is in a hostile zone, they can utilize the portal to return their ballot via the portal and/or if they are choosing to receive their ballot via email, they can return it with that method as well,” said Chrissy Peters, Missouri’s Director of Elections.

While not all states go to that length to make it easier for military members to 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, including Republicans who generally support tightening voting access in the name of security.

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Triniti Lersch
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U.S. Navy
Voting Assistance Officer Timothy Martin sets up a voting booth at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy, Sept. 24, 2020.

“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 access to ballots for some military members that has gotten positive attention nationally, he has also supported a more stringent photo ID policy for civilians to vote in person.

Ashcroft doesn’t think that there should be additional federal mandates to force all states to provide a greater level of ballot access for the military.

“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 that are stationed at each military installation 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 if they avail themselves of that,” said Scott Weidmann, Deputy Director of FVAP.

Advancements in access to voting for military members doesn’t exist in a vacuum apart from civilian voting, according to Inbody.

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,” Inbody said, adding that it’s not unreasonable to think that someday, online voting could be as ubiquitous as absentee ballots.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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.

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.