In 1986, Congress passed a law requiring states and territories to allow active-duty service members, eligible family members and U.S. citizens living abroad to register to vote absentee in federal elections and request an absentee ballot — regardless of where in the world they are living.

In the years since the passage of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the Federal Voting Assistance Program has been working with the services to make sure eligible citizens are aware of their voting rights.  

“Anyone who’s active duty or a spouse or family member of voting age of an active- duty service member is covered by this law, [which] guarantees their right to vote in elections for federal office,” FVAP Director J. Scott Wiedmann explained during a recent interview.  

In addition to the law guaranteeing the right to vote in federal elections, all 50 states allow military and their eligible family members to vote absentee in state and local elections. 

“Because [the states] realize it’s not the military person’s choice to be away from home for work, they allow them to vote in state offices, as well,” Wiedmann said.    

Though the program only has 12 full-time staffers, it indirectly reaches out to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of eligible voters every year. It does this by working with a handful of service voting action officers — the voting program managers for each branch of service and the State Department — and by directly training numerous voting assistance officers to ensure military and overseas voters can cast their ballots successfully from all over the world. 

“Right now, during the first six months of even-numbered years, we have our staff going out to military installations [and] training the voting assistance officers at the unit and installation level, so that those folks then know what to do to assist military members and their spouses,” Wiedmann said. 

Once such voting assistance officer is Bryn Baker, who heads up the Pentagon’s voting assistance program.  

“We help service members, their families and civilians living overseas not only understand their voting rights, but also help them with the voting process [by] making sure they’re aware of the rules for their home states, aware of voting deadlines, and have access to the tools and resources they need to cast their votes and make their voices heard,” Baker said. 

The primary resource that FVAP provides is its biannual voting assistance guide, which is available in print and on the organization’s website,  

The website, including its form completion tools and printed voting guide, has information on federal and state voting guidelines, registering to vote and requesting and absentee ballot. There’s also information on using the Federal Post Card Application, which military and overseas voters can use to register to vote and request absentee ballots for the year. The website also provides a tool to fill out the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, which is the federal backup ballot, if a service member has not received a state ballot, as requested.  

Additionally, voters can use the website links to touch base with their election office on the status of their registration or mailed-in ballot.   

Wiedmann said all the states and territories have the same general absentee voting process: a voter requests a ballot, receives the ballot and returns the completed ballot.  

But there are differences in the deadlines for registering to vote.  

Wiedmann said the longest deadline for registering is 30 days before an election, so he recommends that voters mail their absentee ballot request to their local election office every January.  

This not only ensures that eligible voters get their ballots in on time, Wiedmann said, but it also ensures that the local election offices know voters are still eligible to vote under the law. Plus, Wiedmann said, voters who might be deployed and not up to speed on the political scene back home can become aware of the elections taking place in odd-numbered years. 

“We want to make [the voting process] as uniform as possible so that people don’t feel like they can’t participate because it’s too complicated or it’s too hard a process,” Wiedmann said. 

“It really is a generally basic process, and we just want people to know that they can vote and that we have the tools and resources they need.”

Leave a comment

Powering peace, equipping nations