Electronic Ballot Return for Military and Overseas Voters— Experiences in Alaska, Arizona and Washington

Over a decade ago, States began to explore the use of electronic technology in the U.S. military and overseas voting process. This article explores the varying policy solutions and technology platforms administered by Alaska, Arizona and Washington as well as emerging federal requirements affecting U.S. military and overseas voters. 

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About the Author
Kamanzi Kalisa joined CSG in 2014. As director of CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative, Kalisa works with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program through a four-year, $3.2 million cooperative agreement to improve the overseas voting process for U.S. citizens living abroad—uniformed services personnel, their voting-age dependents and overseas civilians. CSG’s Overseas Voting initiative provides the U.S. Department of Defense with collaborative management, research services, and product development and dissemination to state anlocal governments regarding innovative military and overseas voting technologies and policies. Prior to joining CSG, Kalisa served as the director of the Help America Vote Act program for Georgia’s Office of the Secretary of State, distributing federal funds to improve election administration for local jurisdictions in the state. Kalisa holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tufts University and a master’s degree in public administration from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration was created following President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union message to improve the administration of U.S. elections. In a January 2014 report, the commission outlined their scope: “The United States runs its elections unlike any other country in the world. Responsibility for elections is entrusted to local officials in approximately 8,000 different jurisdictions. In turn, they are subject to general oversight by officials most often chosen through a partisan appointment or election process. The point of contact for voters in the polling place is usually a temporary employee who has volunteered  or one-day duty and has received only a few hours of training. These defining features of our electoral system, combined with the fact that Americans vote more frequently on more issues and offices than citizens anywhere else, present unique challenges for the effective administration of elections that voters throughout the country expect and deserve. This Report focuses not only on the problem of election administration for all voters, but also the effect of administrative failures on discrete populations such as voters with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, and military and overseas voters.” 

Over a decade ago, States began to explore the use of electronic technology in the U.S. military and overseas ballot submission and ballot return process. This article explores the varying policy solutions and technology platforms administered by Alaska, Arizona and Washington as well as emerging federal requirements affecting U.S. military and overseas voters; specifically, the implementation of electronic ballot return systems.

Historical Background

Election administration policy in the United States has been a top policy issue dating back to the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election. Following that election, Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which authorized $3.86 billion for improvements to various components of elections technology.1 The act also mandated establishing the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent, bipartisan agency to study and share election administration research and innovation.2 

For decades, many members of the U.S. military and their dependents experienced problems navigating the overseas voting process. The primary problem was that insufficient time was provided for an overseas voter’s ballot to be delivered and returned in time to be counted. Military and overseas voters are a relatively mobile and transient population, some of whom reside in remote areas of the world. The Federal Voting Assistance Program at the U.S. Department of Defense carries out many of the responsibilities mandated by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, which was later amended by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009—also known as the MOVE Act. These federal laws attempted to solve absentee voting issues experienced by overseas voters. The acts required states to:

  • Permit U.S. citizens abroad to register and vote by absentee ballot;
  • Eliminate the requirement for notarization of overseas ballots;
  • Make voter registration and applications for absentee ballots available electronically;
  • Accept the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot in case state ballots do not arrive in time; and
  • Make provisions to have ballots available for sending to overseas and military voters at least 45 days before the scheduled Election Day.3

The MOVE Act specifically requires states to provide blank absentee ballots to overseas voters in at least one electronic format (email, fax or an online delivery system) at least 45 days before an election. Federal law allows ballot return to be a state discretionary issue. Returning voted overseas ballots by mail continues to be the primary option, and in 19 states this is the only option. Two states—Alaska and Arizona—allow overseas voters to return ballots via email, fax or web upload. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow overseas voters to return ballots by email or fax. 

Alaska, Arizona and Washington are three states that have gone beyond MOVE Act requirements by allowing their military and overseas voters to submit their absentee ballots electronically.

In 2012, Alaska implemented a web-based ballot delivery system designed by a third-party vendor that was first used in the 2012 general election and provides Alaskan overseas voters an electronic ballot return tool. In order to use this system, Alaskan overseas voters must have online access through  standard platform (desktop, laptop, tablet, etc.), a scanner and a printer.

Once the voter has marked their ballot electronically, they must then upload that ballot as a digital file (PDF, TIFF or JPEG) onto the web-based system. They are then required to complete and print a voter certificate and sign it by hand, providing an identifier and having it witnessed by someone 18 years of age or older. The accompanying voter certificate must be uploaded to Alaska’s Clarity eBallot Delivery Voting System as a digital file. 

Ballots delivered to the Alaska Elections Division through the Clarity eBallot Delivery Voting System must be received on or before 8 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on Election Day. The requirements for voting with this method are the same for both overseas and Alaskan stateside voters, except that overseas voters are allowed to apply for an electronic delivered ballot at any time during the calendar year and have their ballot available beginning 45 days prior to Election Day. Stateside voters may not apply and receive an electronic delivered ballot until 15 days prior to Election Day. In the system’s first election, the 2012 general election, 2,305 voters requested their ballot be delivered through the web-based system, 1,600 were returned and 1,508 of the ballots were counted. In the 2014 general election, 1,794 voters requested their ballot be delivered through the web-based system, 1,295 were returned and 1,205 were counted. One of the benefits of Alaska’s electronic ballot return system is rooted in the system’s accessibility, as many military and civilian overseas voters do not have reliable mail service or access to a fax machine. Alaskan election officials maintain that the system’s intent is to provide another method for the state’s voters to ensure, inasmuch as possible, that all voters have the opportunity to cast a ballot.

In 2004, the Arizona secretary of state’s office implemented a web-based system allowing military and overseas voters the opportunity to register to vote, request an early ballot, and/or obtain information on upcoming elections. The military and overseas voter could only return a voted ballot by mail or fax.

In 2008, the Arizona Legislature passed House Bill 2213, allowing uniformed and overseas voters the option of returning a ballot by other electronic means. In response to this legislation, the secretary of state developed internally in 2014 the Arizona Ballot Scan and Upload System. This system requires an Arizona overseas voter to have access to a computer with Internet access, scanner and printer. An overseas voter receives their ballot and prints it out, along with their official affidavit form that requires their signature. After the voter marks and scans this material into their computer, they log on to the Arizona Ballot Scan and Upload System with a specific user identification and password— provided separately from the secretary of state’s system when they requested their ballot—to upload their voted ballot and affidavit. 

These overseas voters’ ballots and accompanying affidavits are processed by county election administrators similar to other absentee ballots, validating the voter registration and verifying the signature before forwarding the ballots for tabulation. In the 2008 general election, 208 ballots were returned electronically and counted. In the 2010 general election, 36 ballots were returned electronically and counted. In the 2012 general election, 126 ballots were returned electronically and counted. In the 2014 general election, 29 ballots were returned electronically and counted. 

In coordination with a third-party vendor, Arizona conducted a pilot program in 2014 that allowed their overseas voters to return a voted ballot electronically without the use of a scanner. For the 2014 general election, 430 ballots were returned electronically without the use of a scanner. Due to performance issues, the electronic ballot delivery return system has been discontinued. 

The Arizona Ballot Scan and Upload System costs $1,500 annually. The pilot program cost $586,000 for  the installation and the first year of maintenance. Had the state extended this pilot project, it would have spent $117,200-$128,920 for yearly maintenance. 

In 2011, Washington House Bill 1080 was signed into law allowing overseas voters to return their ballots electronically by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Because Washington is one of the few majority vote-by-mail states, the Washington secretary of state’s office created an online ballot delivery tool, “MyBallot,” which is available to all Washington voters.  

Washington’s overseas voters can receive their ballot electronically or by mail; once they’ve completed voting they are required to physically sign and attach a voter declaration form. If voters are unable to return their ballot by mail, they can return the ballot by fax, email or any other method available to them. The most common method to return ballots electronically is by using a scanner to create an electronic copy of their ballot, but in lieu of a scanner, voters can use a camera to take pictures of their ballot and signed declaration form and send those images to their county auditor. Any ballot that is returned electronically is duplicated by county election officials onto a ballot that can be scanned by that county’s tabulation system. 

In the 2012 general election, 34,754 ballots were returned electronically and counted. In the 2014 general election, 10,229 ballots were returned electronically and counted. Some Washington counties have contracted with select election management software solution companies for online ballot delivery solutions to complement MyBallot.

Current Outlook

Technology is critical to ensuring military and overseas voters can effectively participate in U.S. elections. The complexity and speed of emerging technologies move at such a record pace that a growing number of election officials and voters either want new voting technology systems or improvements to existing technology that would enhance their jurisdiction’s overseas voting performance. This evaluation process is taking place against the backdrop of voters demanding easier, multiple and often times electronic platforms to access registration and voting; changing federal, state and local statutes and standards; and budgetary restraints that often force technology applications to reduce costs, offset staffing layoffs and furloughs.

The security and accuracy of electronic ballot return systems remain a high risk and concern for states as well. Merle King, associate professor of Information Systems and the executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University said every voting system—including the Alaska, Arizona and Washington electronic ballot return systems—incorporates some measure of risk. 

“There is no guarantee that any deployed system will function perfectly,” King said. “We have seen high-performing systems developed by small innovators, new to the elections market space, and we have also seen certified systems produced by large, established firms fail. Each system has to be evaluated on its own merits—especially one that is breaking new ground.

“The responsibility of a state or local jurisdiction regarding voting systems is to ensure that it captures voter intent and tabulates results, accurately, securely and with full accessibility, according to federal and state statutes. One way that jurisdictions attempt to achieve these goals is by using U.S. Election Assistance Commission certified systems.”


1 The Help America Vote Act and Election Administration: Overview and Issues Kevin J. Coleman Analyst in Elections Eric A. Fischer Senior Specialist in Science and Technology December 17, 2014.
2 The Help America Vote Act and Election Administration: Overview and Issues Kevin J. Coleman Analyst in Elections Eric A. Fischer Senior Specialist in Science and Technology December 17, 2014.
3 http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-111publ84/html/PLAW-111publ84.htm.