Imagine you are a young sailor in the U.S. Navy, and you’re deployed out on a ship for several months. Others on your ship have been talking about an important presidential election that’s coming up, but you’re worried that you won’t be able to vote because you won’t be home before Election Day. How are you going to cast a vote from the middle of the ocean? And are there resources available to help make sure your vote is counted? The Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA, provides special absentee voting requirements for these and other covered individuals to ensure that their right to vote remains intact, no matter how far away they are located from their voting jurisdiction during an election. Voters covered under UOCAVA fall into two categories: uniformed service members1 and overseas civilians. The Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) is a unique source of information on voting within the UOCAVA population. Using data from the EAVS, we examined some interesting differences in voting by military and overseas individuals from the 2012 to 2016 federal election. The chart below provides a summary of UOCAVA voting in 2016 compared to 2012:
1 Ballot return rates were calculated differently in 2012 and 2016 due to changes in the instructions for the 2016 EAVS, so these numbers should be interpreted with caution.
2 The numbers of counted ballots only include ballots that could be classified as either regular UOCAVA ballots or FWABs.
1. More ballots were sent out to UOCAVA voters in 2016 than in 2012, and a larger proportion was sent to overseas civilian voters. As shown in the chart, more than 50,000 additional ballots were sent out to UOCAVA voters in 2016 than in 2012. But what’s more interesting is whom these ballots were sent to. In the 2012 General Election, states reported transmitting more UOCAVA ballots to uniformed service members than overseas civilians; but in 2016, the opposite was reported.
Figure 1. Total Ballots Transmitted to UOCAVA Voters(2012 and 2016)
It is difficult to know what we should attribute this change in the distribution of transmitted ballots to. Were there real changes in the composition of the UOCAVA population from 2012 to 2016? A change in the UOCAVA population, with fewer military members being covered under UOCAVA, is certainly a possible contributing factor. In addition, many states reported substantial increases in the ballots they transmitted to overseas civili an voters from 2012 to 2016, and together, Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington accounted for more than 40% of the national increase. Some of the change can likely be attributed to differences in how states responded to the EAVS in 2016. As absentee voting rates increase nationally and state election laws evolve to incorporate more convenience voting policies, including permanent absentee voting and vote-by-mail systems, it may become more difficult for jurisdictions, and the voters themselves, to differentiate UOCAVA from regular absentee voting. California, a large military UOCAVA state, reported transmitting about 36,000 fewer ballots to military members in 2016 than in 2012. This state also has no-excuse absentee voting and allows its voters to become part of a permanent absentee voting group.
2. There was a large decrease in the number of Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots (FWAB) submitted in 2016 compared to 2012. FWABs are a type of backup ballot that UOCAVA voters can use in the event that their regularly requested absentee ballot does not arrive in time to vote. In 2016, states reported receiving about half as many FWABs as reported in 2012. Receiving a smaller number of ballots may sound like a negative result, but it may actually be an indicator that election administrators and policies are making it easier for UOCAVA individuals to vote.
Figure 2. Total Number of FWABs Submitted (2008, 2012, and 2016)
Since FWABs are typically used in the event that there is an issue with a voter receiving his or her absentee ballot in a timely manner, decreased usage of the FWAB could indicate that both ballot receipt and timing were less of an issue for voters in 2016 than in 2012. If UOCAVA voters actually needed to use the FWAB less in 2016, it may be a result of improvements to state policies and procedures for transmitting UOCAVA ballots to voters. For example, an increasing number of states have adopted email and online ballot delivery systems in recent years. Also, voter support organizations, such as the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), continue to conduct outreach to local election officials, encouraging them to transmit postal ballots to voters as early as possible.
3. UOCAVA ballots were rejected at a lower rate in 2016 than in 2012. Although the UOCAVA ballot return rate was slightly lower in 2016 than in 2012, a smaller percentage of the ballots that were returned in 2016 were rejected. In addition, most of the ballots that were rejected could not be counted because they were submitted after the state deadline.
Figure 3. Reasons UOCAVA Ballots Were Rejected (2012 and 2016)Similar to our findings on FWAB usage, the decreased ballot rejection rate provides more evidence of improvements in the exchanges that occur between UOCAVA voters and local election officials.
The EAC uses the EAVS UOCAVA data to assist state and local election officials in making informed decisions when administering elections to UOCAVA voters. Further research on the UOCAVA voting process and the obstacles encountered on both the administrative and voting sides will help us better understand the implications of these findings. There are many other organizations that are conducting research to inform best practices and policy changes around UOCAVA voting. FVAP uses EAVS data along with data from their Post-Election Voting Surveys (PEVS) to better understand the UOCAVA population and provide better resources to those voters. The Council of State Government’s (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) examines recommendations for UOCAVA voting policies and develops best practices to guide state policymakers. These groups help overseas and military voters—like our young Navy sailor—retain their right to vote, and vote more easily, even from a boat in the middle of the ocean.
1Uniformed service members include members of the Armed Forces—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—and their dependents who are located away from their voting jurisdiction.