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Most Americans have the freedom to decide how to exercise their sacred right to vote, but those who serve us best have the fewest options.
There are approximately 1.3 million men and women serving in our Armed Forces with roughly 340,000 posted abroad. Most military members serving on American soil live on bases away from their official residence.
They have no choice. They must vote absentee.
In 2018, less than two-thirds of our military were registered to vote and the number of military votes cast was roughly half that of civilians. Seventeen percent of service members who requested a ballot did not receive one because of time delays—missing their opportunity to express their political choices. Those statistics must improve.
They are busy; we are less so. Our imperative as civilians is to encourage them to utilize military voting resources, assure them their votes are highly valued, and make every effort to ensure their ballots are protected and counted when they arrive stateside.
Armed Forces voting has a history nearly as old as our military itself and has been a work in progress.
During the Revolutionary War period, local voting was restricted to landowners, leaving most soldiers unable to exercise their political voices despite the best efforts of local militias to overturn these feudal restrictions.
In the 1864 Civil War election, President Lincoln implemented the first absentee ballot system for soldiers. Most historians agree it was their votes that preserved the Lincoln presidency—and the Union.
Voting is one of our most valuable rights, and of great importance to all Americans. But for the military, it has a uniquely personal application.
“We are choosing our boss, our paychecks, and our benefits,” says Army Lieutenant “Riley” from his post in Italy. “I look carefully at candidates to see who supports the military in general and is sensitive to our financial and family needs. In the private sector, raises come from your relationship with your boss. In the military, they come from a Commander-in-Chief few of us get to meet. They have to be on our side.”
His colleague “Hunter” agrees. “As a Lieutenant in Germany, I served as a Voting Assistance Officer. Voting as a soldier matters because I am giving input on who I want my boss to be. Voting overseas is actually easy, so I always tell everyone there isn’t any excuse not to vote!”
Access to technology also allows seamen and submariners the same opportunity to vote as their landed peers.
“Griff” is a retired Navy Captain with 30 years’ experience. “Our command always encouraged troops to vote and helped them understand the process. We told them this was the best way for them to speak their minds and determine who their boss would be. I encouraged everyone to vote absentee early.”
Military voting currently falls under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and requiring states to send overseas ballots to military voters at least 45 days before an election. It protects the military’s right to vote but does not initiate the process.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program (VFAP) makes it easy for military families to vote. It directs the voter to a state-specific page so they can view their home state requirements and time frames for voting. FVAP is the pathway for both registering to vote and requesting an absentee ballot.
At American Constitutional Rights Union’s Protect Military Votes project, we provide service members with registration links and a Military Voter Bill of Rights to help them understand their unique voting protections. We designated September 1, 2020, as “Military Voting Readiness Day” to encourage service members to register and request absentee ballots with ample time for completion, return, and counting at their home election office.
Unfortunately, there has also been civilian mishandling of military votes throughout history.
In 1864, New York Democrat officials processing military votes were convicted of voter fraud.
In Broward County, Florida in 2016, an election volunteer raised an alarm when she saw election officials “duplicating” military ballots that arrived by fax. In 2018, Broward election observers expressed concern that military votes had been left uncounted. (Our organization sued Broward in 2016 for failing to maintain election integrity.)
In the 2020 primaries, at least 500K absentee ballots have been reported lost or uncounted because of various delivery delays. The Post Office has admitted it is experiencing mail interruptions due to COVID-19.
Military Voter Readiness Day is now, and we hope our military members will use September 1 as a key date to register to vote and request an absentee ballot to make sure they arrive in time for counting.
Our military men and women are unstoppable in their defense of our freedoms. We should be equally as unstoppable in calling attention to the importance of their votes and demanding election officials handle military ballots with the utmost care and integrity.
We must protect the votes of those who protect us.
Kerri (Houston) Toloczko is Vice President of Policy for the American Constitutional Rights Union and its Protect Military Votes Project. She is also a proud Army Mom. Toloczko is a public policy analyst and expert in coalition building, issue advocacy and research on domestic and international issues. She is also a Senior Fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and the Institute for Liberty and previously served as Senior Policy Director for Florida Senator Rick Scott’s Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. Appointed in 2004 by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Ms. Toloczko was a Commissioner on the Congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Her areas of expertise include healthcare, voter integrity, immigration, economic policy, religious freedom, the Constitution and the American founding. A strong proponent of individual and economic liberty and free markets, Toloczko continues to consult internationally for free market government officials. A widely published opinion writer, her columns have appeared in numerous national and state print, internet and institutional publications. She is a regular guest on talk radio and news programs here and abroad.