September 4, 2008, St. Paul, MN – For military men and women serving outside of their home states, the question of voting isn’t always whether they want to, sometimes it’s whether their votes will be counted.
Deployment status and distance from native soil are but two of the impediments that can hinder soldiers, sailors and airmen from exercising their right to vote.
If figures from the 2004 presidential election are any indication, those barriers have severely limited voter participation among enlisted men and women.
About 1 million military members requested ballots that year, but only 330,000 or so were returned and counted, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.
“That’s about a 70 percent failure rate,” said commission Chairwoman Rosemary Rodriguez.
Among military members stationed domestically, the 56 percent voting success rate is considerably higher, she said.
How those numbers compare to previous election cycles is difficult to gauge; the commission was not established until 2002 and not funded until 2004.
Roughly 6 million American military members and civilians are covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, a federal law governing absentee ballot voting in federal elections. Of those, about 2.8 million are military members, their dependents and federal civilian employees, while the rest are citizens living abroad.
In its own armed forces voter participation surveys, the U.S. Department of Defense comes to a different conclusion. Its figures show that nearly two-thirds of those who tried to vote successfully cast a ballot.
Regardless of which agency’s numbers are more accurate, officials with both agree that one of the basic challenges for that population is submitting an absentee ballot.
Complicating matters are laws that vary from state to state about how to transmit absentee ballots to voters and receive them back, Rodriguez said.
This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law to allow Americans covered by the absentee voting act to receive ballots electronically. But they must be mailed back.