A group led by retired high-ranking military leaders has issued a clarion call to resist efforts to declare election winners until all military absentee ballots are counted, citing the impact these votes could have on the 2020 election.

In a report issued Tuesday, the group Count Every Hero noted that most military voters will vote by absentee ballot, and 29 states and the District of Columbia accept mailed military absentee ballots after election day, if the ballots are sent before the close of polls.

The aim of the group’s advertising and outreach efforts “is to ensure all service members' votes are counted before election winners are declared by candidates, election officials and media outlets,” according to the group’s website. Among Count Every Hero’s members are retired and former leaders like former Joint Chiefs Chairman retired Marine Corps General Joe Dunford Jr., former Air Force Secretary Debbie Lee James and retired Navy Adm. Jon Greenert, former chief of naval operations.

“There is no question that active-duty troops and other overseas voters could make the difference in the 2020 election,” said Greenert in a statement announcing the report. “It is crucial we count the votes from our service members and resist any calls to stop the count or declare a winner before these legal ballots have a chance to arrive.”

But one former director of the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program is concerned about the message Count Every Hero may be sending to military absentee voters.

“This group is implying that election officials certify election results before all votes have been counted,” said Bob Carey, director of FVAP from 2009 to 2012. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Election officials only certify results after all properly cast ballots have been counted. To imply otherwise is unnecessarily scaring military voters into thinking their votes will not be counted.”

Carey is a retired Navy captain who is chairman of the National Defense Committee, which is a member of the Military Vote Coalition, as is Count Every Hero. He also served as the Republican National Committee’s veterans outreach director in 2016. Military Vote Coalition is a group of military family and veteran support organizations working to increase voter participation.

Carey’s point is “very well taken,” said Jack Noland, research manager at RepresentUs, in an email response to questions. That organization, which advocates for vote by mail, conducted the research for Count Every Hero.

“Our concern isn’t with elections officials, in abstract," said Nolan. “To be absolutely clear, we know election administrators are principled public servants who will do their jobs as they always have.”

Noland said his organization’s “big worry” is that, given how many military ballots are likely to arrive by mail, and the extended time 29 states plus DC allow for these ballots to arrive after election day, "any attempt to cast doubts on or otherwise challenge absentee ballots as they arrive after the election will necessarily sweep in military ballots, which are some of the latest to arrive.”

The Count Every Hero researchers calculated that more than 75 percent of the available votes in the Electoral College will come from states that will count military ballots after election day, according to the report. “The states that accept ballots arriving a week after election day, or later, still account for a majority of the electoral votes,” the report stated.

By their analysis, researchers stated, the states that will count military absentee ballots after election day send a total of 408 electors to the Electoral College. A candidate typically needs 270 votes out of the 538 Electoral College votes to win the presidency.

“There is no way to fully finish the count in enough states to decide the election on November 3 — these states may very well still have legal ballots in transit,” the researchers stated.

RepresentUs researchers haven’t done an analysis on the impact of the military and overseas voters on the 2016 presidential election, Noland said. But the researchers cited a 2001 report by The New York Times stating there was fairly substantial evidence the military and overseas U.S. citizen ballots were essential to George W. Bush’s 2000 victory in Florida, and key to his winning the election. Florida, for example, has 29 Electoral College votes; military and overseas ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 will be accepted up to Nov. 13.

The amount of extra transit time allowed for those military and overseas absentee ballots varies by state, and the report includes a chart with each state’s deadlines. For example, South Carolina accepts military absentee ballots up to two days after the election; Washington allows 20 days.

According to the 2016 comprehensive report of the U.S. Elections Administration and Voting Survey, 216,308 regular absentee ballots were received from service members and family members for the 2016 general election. Another 23,391 Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots were received by troops and families. Those FWABs are used when, for example, a service member or U.S. citizen overseas hasn’t received their absentee ballot from their voting district in time to return it to be counted.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, commonly referred to as UOCAVA, protects the rights of military members and their eligible family members to vote when they are away from their home voting district. That includes military and family members living in the U.S. as well as overseas. The law also applies to overseas U.S. citizens. In 2016, 382,896 absentee ballots were counted from these U.S. citizens overseas voters.

According to the Count Every Hero report, the Military Postal Service Agency estimates that the average transit time for ballots this year is six days. While postal operations have continued to move mail for military and family members overseas who have access to a military post office, there have been many problems for other American citizens overseas who don’t have access to the military post offices.

This year, there has been controversy about some states mailing ballots to all voters because of concerns due to COVID. The process for absentee ballots is different, requiring registered voters to request the ballots and meet certain requirements and deadlines. Military members have been voting by absentee ballot in large numbers since the Civil War.

In 2009, because of state election officials’ concerns about the volume of absentee ballots returned because military voters’ addresses had changed, federal law no longer requires states to automatically mail UOCAVA voters ballots during each federal election year. Now, UOCAVA voters in most states must request their absentee ballot in any federal election year; that request covers all the federal elections, such as primaries, runoffs, general election, in that election year.

Still time to vote

Have you requested your absentee ballot but haven’t received it? Officials at the Federal Voting Assistance Program are advising you to fill out the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, which you can download from FVAP.gov, and mail it.

Since the beginning of September, service members and their eligible voting family members have had access to the free expedited mail service from overseas, and tracking of their absentee ballot.

This means that each voted ballot dropped off at a military post office overseas will receive the Label 11-DoD, automatically giving that ballot expedited delivery. Make sure you keep that part of the label with the tracking number that allows you to track your ballot.

Only overseas military and their family members are allowed to use the service, and the ballots must be mailed from military post offices overseas.

The Military Postal Service Agency distributes the labels overseas to the post offices and pays for the postage.

In addition, a number of states allow military absentee voters and overseas citizen absentee voters to return their ballots by email, fax or through online portals. The FVAP.gov site links directly to information about each state and their deadlines. In some states, you can still register to vote.

There are a variety of resources on FVAP.gov site, including information about how to locate your local election official, state voting guidelines and election dates and guidelines; and installation voting assistance office locations.

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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