Thousands of troops overseas won't know if their votes were counted on election day

Service member fills out an absentee ballot during the 2008 presidential race. (Photo: DVIDS)

Service member fills out an absentee ballot during the 2008 presidential race. (Photo: DVIDS)

One of the presidential candidates has been on the campaign trail making claims about how the election is “a rigged deal.” And while Donald Trump tries to make a linkage between perceived media bias against him and his declining poll numbers as evidence of this so-called “rigging,” history shows that the American voting process is not as much rigged as it is flawed in some ways.

And nowhere is this truer than with military absentee ballots.

Absentee ballots started during the Civil War when Union soldiers complained that they couldn’t exercise their right to vote because they were stationed along battle lines far away from their home states. President Lincoln, knowing it was going to be a close election and sensing he enjoyed the support of the troops because he was commander-in-chief, pushed to make absentee voting possible. States responded along party lines; Republicans passed laws allowing soldiers to mail ballots home from the war, and Democrats resisted such laws.

The idea died after the war but came back to the attention of lawmakers some 85 years later during World War II. Both Democrats and Republicans figured GIs would support President Roosevelt, which is why Democrats liked the idea and Republicans did not. Most states passed a law allowing absentee ballots, and as a result, nearly 2.6 million service members voted during the 1944 election, according to Donald S. Inbody of The Washington Post.

Demand grew in the decades that followed and processes for absentee ballots, including those used by the military, varied from state to state. Finally, Congress passed overarching guidance in the form of the Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986.

That guidance was imperfect, however. States often mailed ballots out too close to the election to be returned from overseas in time to be counted. As a result, service members grew disenfranchised and often chose not to participate fearing that to do so would be a waste of time.

This sense came to a head during the controversial presidential election of 2000 between Bush and Gore. Gore, the Democratic candidate, conceded only to take it back after discovering that he was actually winning the popular vote and the count in the crucial state of Florida was only separated by several hundred votes. The Democrats demanded a recount, and lawyers sprang into action across polling places statewide. Suddenly words like “hanging chads” (referring to stuck cut-outs on punch cards used to tally votes on antiquated machines) were part of the national lexicon.

Several thousand military absentee ballots came into play in this winner-take-all scenario. Once again lawmakers came down along party lines. Democrats — fearing the military voters were mostly Republican — tried to have the ballots thrown out because they had arrived past the deadline or weren’t postmarked. The Bush campaign ultimately got the ballots counted, which allowed W. to win the election and become the 43rd president.

Because of that chaos, Congress created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to better provide information about elections and passed the Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment Act of 2009, which forced states to overhaul election laws to allow troops to request ballots and register to vote electronically. States were also required to have ballots ready to mail 45 days before an election to ensure enough time for the service member to get it back to be counted.

But these actions have far from fixed the problem. As Eric Eversole wrote in The Washington Times, during the 2010 election cycle many local officials missed the 45-day-prior deadline by more than two weeks. The result was upwards of 40,000 military absentee ballots sent only 25 days before election day, not enough time to make it out to ships at sea or forward operating bases and then back to the U.S.

And that’s not the only problem. Military absentee ballots are supposed to be tallied by home states and sent to the EAC, which is charged with reporting the results to Congress, but an independent study of EAC data conducted by the Walter Cronkite School’s News21 national reporting project found that 1 in 8 jurisdictions reported receiving more ballots than they sent, counting more ballots than they received, or rejecting more ballots than they received.

According to News21, some local voting officials think the EAC’s forms for recording military overseas participation are confusing.

“How am I supposed to account for ballots that are sent to domestic addresses but are returned from overseas?” asked Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in a Florida county with a large population of active duty Air Force personnel. “There are just too many potential anomalies in the way we have to provide service to these voters.”

The process is also complicated on the service member’s side, mostly because of the inherent challenges of the mail systems at the far reaches of America’s military presence around the world but also because the availability of voting information varies between commands.

Matt Boehmer, the director of DoD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, told News21 that service member confusion “is exacerbated by the fact that military voters never receive confirmation that their ballots were counted.” FVAP has recommended that state election officials notify troops when their ballots are counted.

But in spite of all of the issues challenging the military absentee ballot process, military leaders urge their subordinates to participate in the voting process.

“It’s what you raise your hand to do, support and defend the Constitution,” Capt. Yikalo Gebrehiwet, a company commander at Ft. Bragg, told News21. “The best way to do that is by voting.”

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