FORT BRAGG, N.C. — When Americans vote for president in November, many of the 1.4 million active-duty U.S. military personnel stationed or deployed overseas will not know whether their absentee ballots have reached their home states to be counted. And the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC), charged with monitoring their votes, may not know either.
Under the Help America Vote Act, the ballots of military and overseas voters are supposed to be tallied by their home states and sent to the EAC, which reports them to Congress. But a News21 analysis of the EAC’s data found that at least 1 in 8 jurisdictions reported receiving more ballots than they sent, counting more ballots than they received or rejecting more ballots than they received.
Some jurisdictions blame the EAC for confusing forms on which they are supposed to record military and overseas participation numbers. Paul Lux is supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County, Fla., home to Eglin Air Force Base and a large number of military voters.
“It will ask me how many ballots were mailed to overseas voters and how many ballots were returned from overseas voters in various locations in the survey. That is fine, but how am I supposed to account for ballots that are sent to domestic addresses but are returned from overseas?” Lux said. “There are just too many potential anomalies in the way we have to provide service to these voters.”
Military and overseas voting can be a complicated process. Service members can file a federal post card application, which allows them to register to vote and request an absentee ballot from their home state or county. If the service members don’t receive their ballots in time, they can use federal write-in absentee ballots as a backup.
EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks told News21 that some of the inconsistencies between ballots sent and ballots returned are likely the result of military voters printing out the federal write-in absentee ballots and sending them home. Since the ballots are not sent by local jurisdictions, they might be counted as ballots returned but not mailed out.
The commissioner stressed that ensuring the accuracy of that data is up to states and not the EAC.
Advocates for military voters say anomalies in reporting do a disservice to military families and service members, many of whom have been deployed to war zones.
The election administration and voting survey is distributed nationwide by the EAC to local jurisdictions, where it is filled out after federal elections. However, each state or local election office tracks its voting information differently, many of them in ways that conflict with how the EAC requests it.
Hicks said the EAC is working to address these problems.
Uniformed and overseas absentee ballots can be rejected for any number of reasons, but the most common reason, according to a July 2013 EAC survey, is that ballots were sent back late and missed deadlines to be counted.
Yet the EAC data make it difficult to know how often and to what extent military absentee ballots have been rejected. In August last year, at a meeting held by the EAC in Washington, some election officials raised doubts about trusting their data.
The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires that all ballots be mailed to service members no less than 45 days before an election to give military voters the chance to return them. They can take 11 to 18 days to arrive once mailed, according to the Military Postal Service Agency. At least 36 days are needed to transmit the ballot. If there are no shipping delays, service members have only nine days to complete and return the ballot.
There are a number of reasons ballots may be mailed out after the 45-day deadline: lack of information among military voters about how to cast a ballot, administrative errors at the state and local level and the logistics of mailing ballots.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program is part of the Department of Defense. It works alongside the EAC, using its data to track voting trends. Its director, Matt Boehmer, is working to dispel what he considers misgivings among military voters that their votes are not counted.
Boehmer said confusion about ballot rejection is exacerbated by the fact that overseas voters never receive confirmation that their ballots were counted or that returning those ballots to home jurisdictions involves sending them on a convoluted journey across continents and through multiple mailing systems.
While election officials and advocates examine data issues from an administrative level, military installations such as Fort Bragg are engaging in grass-roots awareness campaigns. The Army released a statement in November 2015 advising that “units and installations will host voter registration promotion events.”
“Most of our soldiers, they are so busy with mission. So we kind of stop them and be like, ‘Hey, you know this is your right to vote? ’” said Laurie Joseph, Fort Bragg unit voting assistance officer. “And that is the biggest thing. That’s the biggest mission. To get everybody registered and aware that they can vote.”
This report is part of the project titled Voting Wars — Rights | Power | Privilege, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Erin Vogel-Fox | @ErinVogelFox
Hearst Fellow Erin Vogel-Fox is a master’s-degree student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Erin previously worked as an associate producer for Fox News in Washington, which included working with the White House unit and producing shows for the bureau’s weekend program “America’s News HQ.” You can find her work at erinvogelfox.com.
Michael Olinger | @MikeJOlinger
Fred W. Smith Chair Fellow Michael Olinger is an undergraduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada at Reno. He is the recipient of the Paul A. and Gwen F. Leonard Scholarship, the Edward W. Scripps II Scholarship and the Reno News & Review Scholarship. He was an intern for the Fresno Bee.