With the general election less than four months away, it’s time to request your absentee ballot, if you haven’t done so already.

Officials with the Federal Voting Assistance Program recommend that you request your ballot by Aug. 1.

FVAP officials have been monitoring the situation with COVID, which has affected post offices in a number of international locations, but so far there have been no complaints from the military community voting in their primaries, according to Scott Wiedmann, deputy director of FVAP, which administers the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, commonly known as UOCAVA, for DoD. Its mission is to provide up-to-date information for the military community and overseas citizens who want to vote.

Postal operations have continued to move mail for military overseas throughout the pandemic, Wiedmann said, but there have been some problems for American citizens who don’t have access to a military post office. Because of the constantly changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wiedmann said, overseas voters should contact their military post office, U.S. embassy or consulate, or local in-country post office about any possible delivery delays before mailing their voted ballot.

Military members and their family members who will be away from their polling place on Nov. 3 can vote by absentee ballot. The UOCAVA law requires states to have certain provisions to make voting easier for military and overseas citizens who need to vote absentee. That applies to military members and family members living in the U.S. as well as overseas, and to American citizens living overseas. (Note: there are still a few state primary races left. Find information about them here.)

FVAP encourages the use of the Federal Post Card Application, or FPCA, to start the absentee voting process as it is standardized to be used across all states. The FPCA acts as both a registration and absentee ballot request form. You can download the FPCA on FVAP.gov.

Also, according to FVAP, using the FPCA ensures that your state will send your ballot to you at least 45 days before the election — a protection not guaranteed when using other forms.

Even if you voted in previous federal elections, you should send in your request for an absentee ballot, to ensure you receive the absentee ballot for all the federal elections in that year, and to make sure your information is current. You should request an absentee ballot every year, and every time you move.

DoD provides several ways to get help in the absentee voting process, which can be a little daunting especially for first-time absentee voters: voting assistance officers in military units; installation voter assistance offices; and the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s www.fvap.gov.

FVAP provides a variety of information, as well as links directly to your state’s voting site. It directs you to your local election office in the county and state you call home. FVAP provides details on each state’s deadlines for registering to vote, requesting the ballot and returning the voted ballot. The mission of FVAP is to provide up-to-date information for the military community and overseas citizens who want to vote.

The Aug. 1 suggested time frame for requesting the ballot was also used in 2016, Weidmann said, in order to urge troops, family members and overseas citizens to take action early. It’s not an absolute deadline, because states’ requirements vary, but earlier is better for absentee voters, in order to ensure they get the ballots soon enough to ensure they can return them in time for the vote to be counted.

In the last presidential election, about 46 percent of the 1.3 million active duty members —or nearly 600,000 —voted, according to an FVAP report. About 75 percent of those — or almost 450,000 — voted by absentee ballot. And for those overseas, 51,757 absentee ballots from military and their family members were dispatched to local election officials by the Military Postal Service between Sept. 1, 2016 and Dec. 10, 2016.

Expedited ballot return

This year, as in the past 10 years, DOD will provide the expedited option for returning the mail ballot, starting in September, Wiedmann said. It will be available to service members overseas and their families. Each voted ballot dropped off at a military post office overseas will get a special Label 11-DoD that provides the expedited service and tracking information, to allow the voter to track and verify where the ballot is in transit.

Problems for other overseas voters

While military voters overseas haven’t reported problems getting their ballots to election officials in the U.S. during the primary election season, the global pandemic has caused problems for some American citizens overseas, according to FVAP officials.

As of July 10, there were service disruptions to mail in 92 countries due to foreign postal operator service suspensions or unavailability of transportation, according to the U.S. Postal Service. Some overseas Americans had no other options when their local international post office was closed.

The reports of problems came from overseas Americans who aren’t in the military, or who don’t have access to a military post office, Wiedmann said. FVAP has been working with partners across the U.S. Postal Service, the Military Postal Service Agency and State Department to monitor country level conditions, he said. They’re also working with state and local election officials to help those experiencing disruptions to international mail service because of COVID.

The Council of State Governments recently issued a press release expressing concerns that voters in 20 states that only allow military and overseas voters to return their ballots by mail will struggle to get their ballots back in time because of shutdowns of international post offices. The Council convened the Overseas Voting Initiative Working Group to address the global mail disruptions and the impact on overseas voters.

“While the number of voters who may fall into this category could be relatively small, these individuals have the right to vote and each of their votes matter and could change the outcome of an election,” said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, co-chair of the initiative.

Among other things, the working group recommended that states and local jurisdictions cross-reference their voter registration with country codes to determine how many voters are in this situation; establish a temporary way for these overseas citizens to vote; and to reach out to these voters to let them know their options.

Voters should check their state’s requirements to determine whether ballots can be returned by methods other than mail, such as fax, email or online. Some states have exceptions allowing extra options for service members and those who are serving in hostile fire areas.

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.

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