Service members will get their first reminder about registering to vote on Jan. 15, when a Defense Department message will go out to everyone with a dot.mil email address.
The 2016 general election is almost a year away, but the primaries start in February, and the Federal Voting Assistance Program has been gearing up for months to fulfill its mission of helping voters vote.
"I want to make it loud and clear: the Defense Department is ready for election season," said Matt Boehmer, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. "We want to make sure everyone who wants to participate, can."
The act of voting is between voters and their state election officials; the process doesn't actually include the Defense Department, although the Military Postal Service Agency has a role in getting ballots to and from overseas.
But by law, DoD operates the Federal Voting Assistance Program to assist military and overseas voters in absentee voting. That group includes all military and family members, whether they're living in the U.S. or overseas and are away from their home district on election day, and U.S. citizens who reside overseas fulltime.
Voting by absentee ballot involves more deadlines than showing up at the polls on voting day. Voters can find information about upcoming primaries and deadlines, and start the process, online at FVAP.gov.
They can easily register to vote using a paper copy or electronic version of the Federal Post Card Application, available at FVAP.gov. Or if the state has an online registration, the voter can go to that state's website through FVAP.gov. The FPCA acts as both a registration and absentee ballot request form.
And due to a change in federal law several years ago, voters must request the absentee ballot each election year. States no longer are required to automatically send the ballots to previously registered military and overseas voters, although some do.
A large percentage of service members are under age 30, and research indicates turnout is lower among younger voters.
In a recent analysis of voter data in the 2014 elections, FVAP officials found that when compared with the civilian population of similar demographics for age, gender, employment, education, mobility, marital status, race, region and family status, the active-duty population registered to vote at a higher rate, 71 percent, than the similar civilian population, 58 percent.
But a comparison of active-duty troops and civilians who cast ballots in the 2014 elections, adjusted for the same demographics, shows a considerably different picture: just 23 percent of active-duty members voted, compared to 25 percent of civilians.
"We know awareness of resources is less than what we'd like it to be," Boehmer said. He said DoD is focusing educational efforts to get the word out in a variety of ways in hops of reducing the number of future service members who report that they didn't vote because it was too difficult, or because they didn't know how.
With a relatively young population, DoD has the ability to impact first-time voters, Boehmer said. "If I can make the first-time vote a positive experience, they will likely vote the next time and the next," he said.
Voters, voting assistance officers, and state election officials can find a variety of information at FVAP.gov, and can contact the office through email or by phone with questions at 800-438-8683 or through the website.
Current voting initiatives include:
- A new Voting Assistance Guide is on the website, rewritten and simplified for voters and voting assistance officers in the Defense and State departments, Boehmer said. Officials worked with state election offices in rewriting the guide, standardizing content and making it easier to find information about state voting rules and regulations. It includes dates and rules for both state primaries and elections.
- A revamped voting assistance officer workshop, conducted from January through May around the world. These workshops train DoD and State Department voting assistance officers, with a goal of making them feel more involved and more connected to FVAP so that they'll be better able to help voters, Boehmer said. FVAP also is able to quickly train new voting assistance officers, he added.
- A new microsite to be released in the spring, aimed at reaching younger voters. FVAP will bring voters to the site through social media, and they’ll be able to vote on favorites such as "dogs" vs. "cats," then view the results of others’ votes. The aim is to help voters feel the voting process is approachable, and they’ll be directed to the FVAP.gov website to learn more and complete their absentee voting forms.
- New educational materials, including quick 30-second bites on topics such as updating your contact information, voting tips, the Federal Post Car Application, and the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot.
Snail mail is still in the mix this year as well, with a direct mail program that sends information to service members' homes of record.
"People still read their mail," Boehmer said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.