One of the many strengths of our military is that our service members come from all across the country, from rural counties to densely packed cities and everything in between. However, the geographic diversity of our military can also present unique challenges to service members’ ability to understand and quickly navigate voting rules.
Most people are unaware of the confusing system our service members and overseas voters face when trying to request and cast their absentee ballot. A patchwork of state rules means that there isn’t one standardized process for this group. Yet many of these voters compare voting information with one another, often close to election deadlines when they have very little room for error. Unfortunately, well-meaning fellow voters from different parts of the country might assume requirements are the same for all and pass along bad information.
In part, it is this challenge that moved the Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to partner with the Council of State Governments (CSG) to assemble election officials and experts to find useful and relevant recommendations to make voting easier, regardless of where a military or overseas voter casts their ballot. FVAP Director, Matt Boehmer, also credits the work of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), for creating energy and opportunity to address several longstanding issues. Thankfully, CSG has also been able to utilize former PCEA Commissioners throughout the partnership, including Ann McGeehan, former Texas Elections Director, and Tammy Patrick, former Federal Compliance Officer in the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona.
One of the partnership’s efforts, the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative Policy Working Group, released their key recommendations on December 17. While some of the recommendations are basic good government practices (e.g. use plain language and better utilize websites), certain recommendations, summarized below, deserve special attention:
- States should treat the “Federal Post Card Application” (FPCA) as a permanent request for registration;
- State online voter registration systems should allow military and overseas voters to designate as such when they register and apply for ballots; and
- Local election officials should affirmatively notify when a military and overseas voter’s application is accepted.
The Federal Post Card Application as a request for permanent registration
The most consequential recommendation involves the FPCA. For those who are not familiar with this form, it is a federal form that can be used by qualifying voters to both register to vote and apply for an absentee ballot. The Democracy Fund has written about the importance of this form before. Although it’s a federal form, with likely Congressional expectations of some uniform treatment, due to the unique situation of military and overseas voters, some states have chosen to treat the FPCA differently.
For example, the state of Kansas only considers the FPCA to be a temporary application for an absentee ballot for one year. The form will not permanently register a voter in Kansas. Compare that with California, where submitting a FPCA will register someone to vote and place them on a life-time absentee list where the voter will continue to receive absentee ballots until they do not participate in four consecutive statewide general elections. They must merely maintain an up-to-date mailing address with their election official.
Imagine the confusion this creates in one Army unit, where soldiers from every corner of the country are trying to make sense of when they need to submit an FPCA or when they need to re-register. To try to simplify, FVAP recommends military and overseas voters submit the FPCA “every year and when they move.” However, as this working group suggests, states might want to do their part to reduce some of the confusion.
If jurisdictions were to consider the FPCA a full, permanent registration, that would prevent the the worst-case scenario of mistaken belief on the part of the potential voter. As it stands, voters can unknowingly find themselves lost in the shuffle of state particularities. If a soldier stationed overseas applies to vote and receive an absentee ballot in 2016 with the FPCA, but returns home to Topeka, Kansas in 2017 with the potential mistaken belief that she is registered to vote, and goes to vote in a local city council election, she is not going to find her name on the registration roll—that’s a problem.
Online voter registration systems must be functional for military and overseas voters
Another major recommendation merely requires vigilance on the part of state and local election officials when they develop new online systems, like online voter registration (OVR). In the course of their business, election officials consider and balance the needs of many voters in their jurisdiction. The needs of the military and overseas voters are not always front and center; and the development of new OVR systems is one example of such a lapse.
Many jurisdictions may not contemplate functionality like military status, overseas status, or FPCA requirements such as where or how a voter would like to receive their blank absentee ballot. Instead, the working group has said that states should ensure their systems allow “voters to submit the request from any location worldwide and would place the voter in the appropriate status in the relevant voter registration database.” Meaning that they will need to be able to designate themselves as military and overseas voters via an online system.
One practical exercise for state and local offices: when developing any new system or process, is to have a standard worksheet of analysis on how particular communities of voters will be affected—especially military and overseas voters, given that they may be more out of sight than others.
Communicate when an application is accepted
Information is empowering. If local election offices notify military and overseas voters when their application for an absentee ballot has been accepted, those voters can trust the absentee system that much more. As the working group explains, officials can communicate volumes more than just acceptance and rejection of an application—why not use email addresses now provided on the FPCA to alert these voters of special elections, changes in ballot return methods, and where their absentee ballot is in the process? As technology has improved, this is now easy and possible.
The Democracy Fund is a big supporter of Democracy Works, a group of election information and technology champs, who stand ready and able to help jurisdictions think through ballot-tracking with their Ballot Scout tool.
These are just a few key highlights from the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative Policy Working Group.The effort required plenty of compromise and thoughtfulness on the part of the bipartisan group assembled. A second group on technology will also release additional recommendations around December 2016. Hopes are high that those will also provide a few meaningful steps to making voting easier for this unique group of voters. But for now, states and local governments should strongly consider adopting practices supported by the working group’s initial findings.
Prior to joining the Democracy Fund, Stacey Scholl worked for the Federal Voting Assistance Program as a program analyst and also has experience working in two state election offices—Colorado and Iowa.