Americans want their soldiers to vote. But often they can’t. Despite absentee balloting, military personnel deployed overseas often just cannot participate in elections.

For most of U.S. history, military personnel have not been able to vote. State laws and constitutions often specifically restricted military personnel from participating in the franchise. Attitudes about voting soldiers started to change when the Civil War called large numbers of citizens for military service—but action was tempered by partisan politics.

Some states let Civil War soldiers vote, despite fears of fraud 

The Civil War was the first time the United States had large numbers of soldiers deployed during a presidential election. Politicians of both parties were convinced that the army would vote for the commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. As a result, most states with Republican governors and legislatures passed laws enabling soldiers to vote, while most states led by Democrats did not. Those voting soldiers probably helped Abraham Lincoln in Maryland and influenced a few local elections in various states.

Here was the problem: Then as now, voting was usually conducted in local precincts. The idea that someone not physically present in their home county could cast a ballot was essentially unheard of. Many believed that absentee ballots invited election fraud.

But two methods of getting the vote to deployed soldiers were tried. Most states adopted a form of proxy voting, much like absentee voting today. The soldier marked a provided ballot and simply mailed it back to his home county or precinct. A few states actually tried to conduct an election in the field. Election commissioners were appointed; they then held elections on the designated day in various army camps.

After the Civil War states let the soldier voting laws expire, disenfranchising the military.

Congress steps in to ensure the WWII military could vote

In World War II, the next time the country was at war during a presidential election, attitudes changed much as they had during the Civil War. Both parties assumed that the newly conscripted military would vote for the commander-in-chief, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This time, it was Democrats who pressed for soldier voting laws while Republicans resisted.

In World War II, for the first time, Congress got involved directly with the soldier vote, passing laws that encouraged states to permit service personnel to request ballots and to vote while stationed overseas. States were asked to change their election laws and most did so. However, Southern states resisted the legislation on states’ rights grounds and managed to water down the law, making it less effective than originally planned.

But the challenges were greater during World War II than during the Civil War. The military was deployed on multiple continents. With vast numbers of citizens pressed into military service, family members who wanted their soldiers and sailors to vote pressured elected officials to get over their resistance and enable absentee voting. Unlike during the Civil War, no attempt was made to conduct elections in the field as proxy voting became the preferred method simply because it was easier to administer. Despite the difficulties, some 2.6 million service personnel were able to vote during the 1944 presidential election, which was about 6 percent of the total number of votes cast that year.

The absentee ballot becomes standard

Pressure continued to allow Americans overseas to vote, especially as the numbers of civilian Americans living overseas increased after World War II.

Finally Congress acted, passing the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986 to clarify guidance. Later, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009. States were required to change their election laws to ensure that overseas military personnel could register to vote and request ballots electronically. Additionally, states were required to have ballots ready to mail at least 45 days before an election to ensure enough time to return the ballot to be counted.

State laws slowly began to make it easier for Americans away from home, particularly those overseas and in combat zones, to vote.

How do soldiers today vote? They’re less conservative than officers. 

All this is examined more closely in my new book “The Soldier Vote,” which also details the demographics and political attitudes of American military personnel, especially enlisted personnel. Before 2006, only officers had been studied for their political behavior. While research had confirmed that the officer corps was strongly Republican and conservative, no such work had been done with enlisted personnel. Since the demographics of enlisted personnel are markedly different from that of most officers, it was a mistake to assume that they would have the same party preferences or political ideology.

To examine whether differences between officers and enlisted personnel’s political attitudes exist, I surveyed more than 2,000 active duty and veteran military personnel. My findings show that enlisted personnel are neither overwhelmingly Republican nor conservative. Specifically, I found that the proportion of military personnel who identify as Republican matches that of the American population, but soldiers are significantly less strongly partisan and conservative. Nevertheless, the number of military personnel who identify as Democrats is significantly less than the general population.

The military vote is still hard to count

Getting the vote to deployed military personnel is difficult. Federal legislation has slowly pushed states to ensure that ballots are made available well before elections and that blank ballots can be sent electronically. However, getting a marked ballot back to the right precinct in time to be counted remains difficult. It takes time to get a ballot to and from someone in a combat zone or on a ship at sea.

States are making it easier to register to vote and to obtain a ballot, but problems remain. For example, soldiers from Iowa are essentially unable to participate in their state parties’ processes of selecting presidential candidates through caucuses, which by their nature require the physical presence of participants.

States are working on solutions. Marked ballots can be returned by fax in most states, but 19 still require the ballot to be returned by mail. Some states are experimenting with e-mailed votes, but security issues with Internet voting remain a serious problem.

In the 2012 presidential election, some 250,000 overseas and military voters who apparently wanted to vote were unable to navigate the system. While overall the military population will vote at a higher rate than the general population, those stationed overseas vote at a significantly lower rate. The voting rate among overseas military personnel for that election was probably less than 20 percent, a sure sign that there’s more work needed to ensure the full enfranchisement of Americans serving their country abroad.

Don Inbody is senior lecturer in political science at Texas State University. Before entering academia, he served 28 years on active duty in the Navy, retiring as a captain.