Overseas Voting Initiative Helps Get Out the Vote for U.S. Military

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman takes her commitment to U.S. overseas voters very personally. When asked about it, she looks back to the 1980s, when she and her husband were stationed in Germany during his service as a U.S. Army Ranger. During their deployment, their absentee ballots arrived the day after the election. It was the first time she had missed voting in an election since her 18th birthday.

“I have made advocacy of our military families a signature issue. It’s a part of how we demonstrate our respect and admiration for our service members who serve the cause of freedom,” said Wyman.

Washington has 4 million active registered voters; of those, nearly 65,000 are military or overseas voters.

“As secretary of state, it is my highest priority to make sure all of our registered voters have a chance to take part in our elections, no matter if they live in my state or serve in the most remote corners of the world,” she said.

In addition to improving voting for Washington’s military and overseas voters through such measures as sending absentee ballots via email and pioneering online voter registration, Wyman is taking her commitment to overseas voters nationally as chair of CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative’s Policy Working Group.

Working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense, CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative is promoting best practices and data standardization policies that will benefit more than 5 million U.S. military and overseas civilian voters. These voters often are located in remote areas abroad, lacking access to the voting information available to U.S. civilians residing within their neighborhood voting precincts.

As part of this process, members of the initiative’s Policy Working Group have identified several policy areas in which additional guidance is needed, including overall communications, online voter registration and sample ballots that may improve the military and overseas voting process.

Communications – Use plain language when interacting with military and overseas voters at every step in the voting process. Election officials should make military and overseas voter specific websites that are easily accessible and compatible with mobile platforms, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. Status updates also should be provided to help overseas voters identify where they stand during each step of the voting process—from voter application status and the date a ballot is sent to the ballot receipt date and final ballot disposition.

David Stafford, the supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Fla., and co-chair of the Policy Working Group, administers one of a very few websites developed by a county to assist overseas voters. He said providing an informative website for U.S. military and overseas voters is just a first step in improving the voting experience for citizens living abroad.

“In my role, I have the privilege of working with many military and overseas voters and their families,” he said. “It’s given me the opportunity to implement innovations like a military and overseas voter website and electronic ballot delivery, but the work goes on.”

Federal Post Card Applications – Promote the use of the Federal Post Card Application as the primary method of communication between military and overseas voters and election officials. The application helps election officials determine if an overseas voter complies with the state’s voter registration requirements, which ballot or election materials to send, and where and how to send voting materials. It also helps to clarify an overseas voter’s status in the voter registration database and allows for easy post-election reporting.

Allow a minimum validity period for the Federal Post Card Application ballot request through the next scheduled general election. This policy embraces the voter’s reasonable expectation that a request is valid through the next major election. Regardless of the state’s validity period for the Federal Post Card Application, clear communication of the voter’s ballot request “expiration date” is critical.

Online Voter Registration – Twenty states had administered online voter registration systems by the end of 2014; an additional four states have passed legislation to create online voter registration systems. 

While online voter registration systems hold promise to register military and overseas voters more efficiently, the design of these systems is critical to their success. Members of the Policy Working Group suggest a system that enables overseas voters to apply for an absentee ballot using the Federal Post Card Application or a state equivalent, allows voters to submit their request from any location worldwide and places the voter in the appropriate status in a state’s voter registration database. The state online voter registration system should utilize the state’s existing identification protocols and information technology security policies.

Gary Poser, Minnesota’s director of elections, said Minnesota’s statewide online voter registration system—launched in 2013—has improved the voting process in his state.

“More than 30,000 Minnesotans have taken advantage of the accessibility of online voter registration,” he said. “[A]n additional 1,500 military and overseas voters have successfully submitted an online Federal Post Card Application to register and request an absentee ballot. 

“Online voter registration has demonstrated its ability to reduce taxpayer costs by modernizing the work of state and local government.”

Sample Ballots – Most voters in the United States have access in advance of elections to customized sample ballots, as well as listings of candidates, ballot items and instructions for voting; this is not always the case for voters overseas. Receiving sample ballot materials can be a key component of an overseas voter’s preparation for an upcoming election. Simply ensuring that sample ballots are provided to military and overseas voters and posting candidate and ballot measures on state and local election websites can go a long way in helping prepare overseas voters to participate in an election.