Registering Military and Overseas Citizens to Vote

July 16, 2009

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Problems Registering to Vote
Modernizing Voter Registration
About the Voting Rights & Election Project
About the Author


Members of the United States armed forces and their families face unique challenges to participating in our elections. If their votes are to count and their voices are to be heard, these citizens must overcome hurdles not faced by most Americans. They deserve better: the nation should make it a priority to remove barriers to political participation for those who dedicate themselves to defending our democracy.

Two aspects of the election system create problems for military voters and their families. First, many of these citizens have difficulty with voter registration: earlier this year, the recently appointed Director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program in the Department of Defense, Bob Carey, testified before the United States Senate that the registration rate for military voters is almost 20 percentage points lower than that for all Americans. Carey explained that "[t]he military voter registration process is exceptionally complex, varies in its deadlines from State to State, is tied in with the absentee ballot application process, and is subject to exceptional opportunities for errors."

Additional problems spring from absentee ballots and the often logistically tricky questions of how to get these to - and collect them from - military personnel and overseas voters who are away from their permanent voting addresses on Election Day. In the 2006 election, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission ("EAC") reported that of almost 1 million absentee ballots requested by military and overseas voters, only about a third were ever counted; two thirds of the uncounted ballots were returned by the postal service without reaching the voters who requested them; another 10 percent arrived too late to be counted. Many of the problems with absentee ballots themselves trace back to problems with registration records, because when registration information contains out-of-date or inaccurate mailing address data, delivering absentee ballots is difficult or impossible.

The results are predictable - and disheartening: military voters are much less likely than other Americans to cast ballots and to have their ballots counted. According to the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, servicemen and women who live in the United States vote at a rate 10 percent lower than the general population - and military personnel stationed overseas face additional hurdles to voting. The Pew Center on the States found that overall, in the 2006 federal elections, "voter turnout was only 20.4% for the military population, compared to 39.8% of the general population which voted . . . [because of] a fractured system of voting for our military." The EAC found that in 2006, less than 16.5% of approximately 6 million eligible military and overseas voters even requested absentee ballots.

Fortunately, there is a way to modernize the voter registration system that will solve these problems. Moreover, the problems facing military voters - and civilian voters living overseas - have been the focus of significant attention since the 2008 election. Federal and state lawmakers introduced a wide range of reforms directed at remedying the absentee balloting problems plaguing these populations. One federal bill in particular - the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment ("MOVE") Act - promises to make it easier for military and overseas voters to obtain voter registration applications, ballots and other election materials in a timely manner. This and other legislative efforts would certainly improve electoral access for military and overseas voters, but they would not materially affect the challenges these voters face in ensuring that they are properly registered with up-to-date mailing information. Unless these challenges are addressed, military and overseas voters will continue to face significant hurdles to participating in elections.

This policy paper focuses on the voter registration problems facing military voters - and on solutions to these problems. In particular, it explains how modernization of the voter registration process would significantly decrease the registration problems military voters face - while simultaneously reducing some of the problems associated with absentee balloting. Voter registration modernization would increase the rate and accuracy of registration for military voters and their families. It would also ameliorate problems experienced by veterans and other U.S. citizens.

American citizens have the right to vote no matter where they are stationed or choose to live, and the election system should be reformed to make their right to vote meaningful. Voter registration modernization is a crucial step toward ensuring that all Americans - including those who risk their lives to protect our democracy - can participate meaningfully in that democracy.

Problems Registering to Vote

According to EAC data, the military has a registration rate of 64.86% of voting age citizens, as compared to 83.8% for the general population. While the EAC concedes that its data overstates registration rates, the relative figures do demonstrate that Americans serving in the military are registered at far lower rates than those not serving in the military. Moreover, military personnel reported having almost twice as many registration problems in 2008 as non-military voters, according to a widely respected national survey.

An absent military or overseas voter must ensure not only that his or her registration application is received before the home state's registration deadline, but also that it is received far enough in advance of the next election that there is sufficient time for an absentee ballot to be mailed to the voter, completed, and returned before the deadline for counting such ballots. If the voter registers using the FPCA, that form can be used to simultaneously request an absentee ballot; if registering using a state or federal mail-in form, a separate absentee ballot request may be required. Whatever form is used, however, the voter will need to provide a mailing address that will be valid at the time absentee ballots will be issued. This may be the most challenging aspect of filling out voter registration materials for highly mobile citizens, and it is a serious challenge for military personnel who may be relocated with little notice. In some states, this problem can be lessened in part by providing election officials with a valid e-mail address; election officials in 32 states can electronically transmit ballots to distant voters (generally by fax or e-mail). But, in 18 states, ballots must be sent to absentee voters by mail, so military voters must provide election officials with a new mailing address every time they relocate if they are to receive their ballots in time to be able to vote.  

Other groups of American citizens face registration problems similar to those experienced by members of the military. Civilian Americans living overseas, for example, encounter many of the difficulties involved in registering from afar, and these problems often hinder or prevent them from casting valid ballots. The Overseas Vote Foundation confirmed these registration problems in a report on the 2008 election, finding that, in 2008, nearly a quarter - 23.7% - of experienced overseas voters had problems or questions with registering. Registration problems occur even more frequently with voters attempting to cast a ballot from overseas for the first time.

The logistical difficulties related to registration result in millions of overseas and military voters not being registered to vote, and therefore not being able to participate in elections. As noted above, the voter participation rate for military and overseas voters is shockingly low - about 20% lower than the already-low turnout rates for all Americans.

Modernizing Voter Registration

Modernizing the voter registration system would significantly decrease the problems these voters face and would make it much easier for them to participate in our democracy. Under a system of voter registration modernization, state governments would automatically register all voting-eligible citizens captured in other government lists, including active duty military personnel and their families, veterans, and some voters living overseas. Election officials would track voters' address changes, and update their registration records regularly, based on accurate address change information provided to other government agencies. Election officials would also collect e-mail addresses, which can be used to confirm and update registration information and speed the delivery of ballots and other election materials to military and overseas voters. Overall, a more modernized registration system would leverage existing lists and technology to ensure that all Americans - including those who must travel to defend our democracy - are registered to vote, accurately, and with up-to-date information.


Most of the problems that impede military and overseas citizens from voting stem from the voter registration system and, in particular, the inability of the current system to handle a highly mobile population located far from home. The flaws in our current registration system mean that these voters are registered at significantly lower levels than other Americans - and that their ballots count much less frequently. This is simply unacceptable. Fortunately, despite the logistical challenges facing military and overseas voters, a solution is close at hand. Modernizing the voter registration system by automatically registering voters based on the data maintained by the Department of Defense's Defense Manpower Data Center will guarantee that American citizens fighting to defend our democracy will not be disenfranchised because of bureaucratic inefficiencies. This can be done securely, without compromising private or sensitive information; indeed, this data is already shared with other government agencies for the purpose of administering benefits and entitlements. Technical solutions to the problems that keep military voters from participating in our political system are readily accessible and should be adopted quickly. We must reform the voter registration system so that our men and women in uniform are guaranteed the right to participate in our elections. We owe them no less.

About the Voting Rights & Elections Project

The Voting Rights and Elections Project works to expand the franchise, to ensure that every eligible American can vote, and that every vote cast is accurately recorded and counted. The Center's staff provides top-flight legal and policy assistance on a broad range of election administration issues including voter registration systems, voting technology, voter identification, statewide voter registration list maintenance, and provisional ballots.

This is one in a series of white papers on Voter Registration Modernization. The first, Voter Registration Modernization, sets forth more detailed policy arguments in favor of modernizing America's voter registration system. Others include Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World, which examines international methods of voter registration; Permanent Voter Registration, which analyzes systems of statewide permanent registration; and When Voters Move, which examines how states handle voters who move. 

About the Author

Adam Skaggs works on a range of voting rights, election administration, and judicial independence issues. Before joining the Brennan Center, he was a litigation associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. In 2003, Mr. Skaggs graduated summa cum laude with a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, where he was a member of the Brooklyn Law Review. He subsequently clerked for Judge Stanley Marcus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and Judge Edward Korman, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Mr. Skaggs received an M.S. in Urban Affairs from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and holds a B.A., awarded with distinction, from Swarthmore College.