Some early statistics indicate this year’s absentee voting turnout among military and overseas citizen voters may far surpass the turnout for the 2016 general election.
One indicator of the increased military vote is the 51-percent increase in the overseas absentee ballots returning to the U.S. by the Label 11-DoD express mail tracking system, compared to the same time period in the 2016 general election, from the beginning of September through Oct. 14. The U.S. Postal Service has tracked 36,377 of these ballots entering the U.S. mail stream since the tracking began in September, said USPS spokesman David Coleman. That compares to 24,034 through Oct. 14, 2016.
The Label 11-DoD is a free express mail tracking system that is used at military post offices overseas, and is available only to service members and family members. It has been used in federal elections since 2010, and is available starting the beginning of September before the election.
About three out of four active duty members in the U.S. and overseas are eligible to vote by absentee ballot because they’re stationed away from their voting residence, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
Although the numbers of these ballots using the tracking label may be relatively small, “the increase is a very good indication” of a higher turnout, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote Foundation, which, like DoD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, provide voters tools and resources to help them vote successfully from anywhere in the world. The numbers also represent only service members and family members overseas, but military members and their eligible family members have absentee voting rights wherever they are stationed away from their voting district in the U.S. or abroad. These voters are protected by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, and they are commonly referred to as UOCAVA voters. There are also increasing numbers of military and overseas voters who are able to vote by electronic means, depending on their state.
And while there has been a 51 percent increase in the number of military ballots returned to election officials with these tracking labels, there has conversely been a 20 percent decrease in the number of military service members stationed or deployed overseas during the same time period, according to Department of Defense statistics. According to those statistics, as of June, 2020 there were about 190,611 active duty, Guard and Reserve personnel overseas, compared to 238,114 in June, 2016.
Federal Voting Assistance Program officials report there has been about twice the level of traffic to FVAP.gov, compared to the same time frame in 2016, according to FVAP Director David Beirne, in an email response to questions. And there has been an increase in the number of Federal Post Card Application packages that have been downloaded from FVAP. The FPCA can be used by UOACA voters to register to vote and to request their absentee ballot. The mission of FVAP, as mandated by law, is to ensure that service members, their eligible family members, and U.S. citizens overseas are aware of their right to vote and have the tools and resources to successfully do so from anywhere in the world.
Through Oct. 13, 648,854 FPCA packages had been downloaded from the FVAP site, Bierne stated. Again, those FPCAs are for an all-inclusive population of military members and their family members voting by absentee ballot, as well as the approximately 2.9 million U.S. citizens living overseas.
|# Military absentee ballots sent to U.S. by Express mail tracking ballot from Sept. through Oct. 14||24,034||36,377||+51%|
|# Federal Post Card Applications downloaded year to date (U.S. citizens overseas and military voters)||328,449 (through 9/24/16)||648,854 (through 10/13/20)||+98%|
|Source: U.S. Postal Service; Federal Voting Assistance Program, 2016 and 2020|
That’s double the number of FPCA downloads over roughly the same time period — through Sept. 24, 2016, based on information provided to Military Times in 2016. FVAP officials couldn’t provide an exact comparison based on time frame between 2016 and 2020. Downloads indicate the level of activity; not the number of FPCAs actually returned to each election district. There has also been increased concern by U.S. citizens overseas about mail delivery times during the COVID pandemic; and concerns about cost-cutting moves by the U.S. Postal Service. Those changes have since been rescinded.
Dzieduszycka-Suinat said the traffic on their websites has also increased dramatically, by about 150 percent, compared to 2016.
The increases track with increased voting activity in the general population. According to the U.S. Election Project, nearly 40 million voters in the general population had cast ballots as of Oct. 21, which is nearly 29 percent of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election. The project, run by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida, has tracked early voting statistics since the 2008 election. Those ballots include early in-person voting at locations set up by election officials, mailed in ballots, and absentee ballots.
“It seems like there’s more interest” in voting among military and other UOCAVA voters, said Bob Carey, a retired Navy captain who served as director of FVAP from 2009 to 2012. The numbers of express mail ballots “is a good sign that more people are voting, and more people are using this service,” he said.
Overall, the various increases in numbers of FPCA downloads and online activity could also mean that UOCAVA voters are conducting more of their voting activity online, Carey said. The bottom line is at the local election official level, where all the UOCAVA votes will be counted, he added.
According to FVAP’s report to Congress on the 2016 election UOCAVA activity, the frequency of FPCA downloads decreased significantly from the 2012 presidential election, and the drop was “disproportionate and potentially troubling.” This year’s increase appears to reverse that trend.
There has been one notable decrease in the UOCAVA activity — the decrease in the number of Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot packages that have been downloaded. The FWAB acts primarily as a back-up ballot in case the state’s election ballot hasn’t been received, and 36,853 FWAB packages had been downloaded as of Oct. 13, Beirne said. That’s about half the number of downloads through Oct. 8, 2016, according to numbers FVAP provided to Military Times in 2016.
But the decrease in FWAB downloads “is a very good sign,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. “It indicates that voters requested their ballots earlier and got them on time.” States are required by law to transmit the blank ballots to military and overseas voters electronically to get them there faster, and that is having the desired effect, she said. In addition, UOCAVA voters can also email their voting officials if they haven’t gotten their ballot, and the issue gets resolved earlier.
The signs are that the investments in making it easier for UOCAVA voters to vote by absentee ballot are making a difference, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. Hopefully this is the year where voters will see a return on those investments, she said. "The numbers will go up, and voters will be less frustrated with the system. They will have gotten in there earlier, and give everyone a chance to succeed.
“People are not only using the system, but are finding out about certain benefits, such as the Label—11 DoD,” she said.
Still time to vote
In many states, it’s not too late to register to vote or request your absentee ballot. Voters should visit www.fvap.gov/military-voter to get information and start the process.
Have you requested your absentee ballot but haven’t received it? Officials at the Federal Voting Assistance Program advise you to contact your election office about the ballot status, and use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, which you can download from FVAP.gov. If you receive your official absentee ballot after sending in the FWAB, you can fill it out and send it in too. Only one will be counted. After sending in your ballot, you can contact your election official to see whether it has been received. Find the contact information here.
FVAP officials also advise voters to follow all instructions for completing and returning their voted absentee ballot. Most states require voters to sign the absentee ballot package; and some states require a ballot secrecy envelope to be used.
Military members and their eligible voting family members overseas have access to the free expedited mail service from overseas, and tracking of their absentee ballot through the Label 11-DoD discussed earlier.
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.
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.