US & World

Voting can be a perplexing process for overseas troops

Navy Lt. Jessica Vaeth assists fellow sailors on the Navy assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard register for absentee ballots for the 2016 election.
Navy Lt. Jessica Vaeth assists fellow sailors on the Navy assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard register for absentee ballots for the 2016 election.
JEANETTE MULLINAX / U.S. NAVY

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Whether you're stationed at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan, on a ship in the South China Sea, or at Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany, it can be a can be a complex process for active duty military personnel to vote.

Service members are required to vote absentee, and each state has its own regulations. Though the Department of Defense created the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to simplify voting, director Matt Boehmer said many service members remain frustrated with the process.

"One of the things that our active duty military told us was the fact that 67 percent of them weren't confident that their ballot was counted," Boehmer said referring to a 2014 post-election survey . "Certainly, that 67 percent number gets people’s attention and it certainly got my attention."

All states are required to provide overseas voters with electronic ballots. Every state makes the ballots available online or by email, and some states will also fax or mail them to troops who prefer to receive the ballot on paper.

But returning a voted absentee overseas ballot is where it gets tricky. Eighteen states require ballots to be returned only through the mail. The other 32 allow some form of electronic return, but it varies widely.

For instance, Florida accepts overseas ballots only by mail or fax.

"If you're in a Forward Operation Base in the middle of the mountains in Afghanistan there's no option to fax," said U.S. Army veteran Diego Echeverri. "And you're not going to have a scanner, you're not going to have these devices."

The Golden Knights are part of a campaign to promote military overseas absentee voting.
The Golden Knights are part of a campaign to promote military overseas absentee voting.
CREDIT FEDERAL VOTING ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

Echeverri served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 and is Florida director for the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America.

Dan Caldwell, CV4A vice president of communications and policy, is an Iraq War veteran. He said his generation expects the ease of electronic voting.

"If troops can Skype overseas in most locations now with their family members, then they should be able to find a way to securely and secretly vote," Caldwell said. "And I think that can work. I think we have the technology to do it. It just requires some government bureaucrats to get off their butts and actually do it."

But it’s not just bureaucrats; state lawmakers decide their states' election rules.

And it's a balancing act between giving voters the convenience of online access versus protecting the integrity of their ballot .

"We've got legislators who are very interested in meeting the needs of military members," said Wendy Underhill, program director for elections and redistricting with the National Conference of State Legislatures . "They are younger. They are used to using electronic interactions for every single thing in their life, and so, there is that push against the security."

Four states do provide online voting to limited groups like military personnel in combat zones. Alaska is the first state to allow everyone to vote online. Yet Underhill says the Alaska process is not all that simple.

"Not only do they cast their ballot online, they have to print out a voter identification certificate and something else and get it signed by themselves and a couple of witnesses. And then, scan that back in and send it too. And so it’s not that it's an easy process," Underhill said.

Fifty-six percent of active duty military, in the 2014 FVAP survey, said the process to get an absentee ballot was too complicated and confusing.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, KUOW-Seattle, and WUSF-Tampa.