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As Military Appreciation Month draws to a close, I am reminded of my own service as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy. From the decks of the USS John F. Kennedy to my military post in Italy, I served alongside some of our nation’s finest men and women in defense of democracy, even as we ourselves were sometimes unable to participate in the electoral process due to exigent circumstances.

I remember one Thanksgiving when my mail included an election ballot that I received weeks after the final votes had been tabulated back home. At the time I was disappointed and frustrated by the process. Today, from my post as a U.S. Election Assistance Commission commissioner, I view that experience as an important reminder of our nation’s responsibility to ensure that servicemembers and other Americans living overseas have the tools they need to fully participate in elections despite the remote location of their service.

This was also Congress’ goal when it passed the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, legislation that protects the voting rights of our military and other Americans overseas. That law requires U.S. states and territories to allow these citizens to register and vote in elections for federal office using special absentee voting procedures.

While that may seem easy in theory, the past three decades have demonstrated that challenges remain for these voters, and we must strive to improve their voting experience.

In my travels around the nation and in my time as an state election official in Virginia and Florida, I’ve learned that information sharing and technology are key to finding efficiencies and ensuring military and overseas voters are able to fully participate in elections like other citizens. In addition, election administrators and voters alike need access to federal support to make this process work.

That is where the EAC and our partners at the Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program are best-positioned to help. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, below are some key tips to keep in mind.

While many Americans now register to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles, at an elections office or online, UOCAVA voters often do not have the benefit of such resources. For most, their first stop is the Federal Post Card Application, which is universally accepted as an absentee voter registration application for UOCAVA voters.

While the form is standard, the requirements for completing it and submitting it may vary by state. FVAP has the form readily available on its website to download and recommends UOCAVA voters send in the form at least 90 days before the election in which they wish to participate and thereafter submit an updated FPCA every January or each time you move. If you are deploying, let your local election official know your temporary or new address.

Once servicemembers are registered to vote, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires that election administrators send UOCAVA ballots at least 45 days before Election Day. That means that UOCAVA voters should request their ballot well ahead of that deadline. While the EAC and FVAP have partnered with the U.S. Postal Service to improve election mail processes, including for UOCAVA voters, it is a best practice to not cut these deadlines too closely. You should aim to mail or email your ballot request to election officials at least eight weeks before Election Day. Additional time may be needed for servicemembers stationed in areas where mail service is less frequent or reliable. An additional option for servicemembers is to request to receive their blank ballot electronically through email or electronic download from their election office website, if available.

According to the EAC’s 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey, during the last presidential election, 368,516 ballots were transmitted by election officials to uniformed servicemembers. Of those, 65.8% were returned. While the rejection rate for UOCAVA ballots in 2016 was relatively low across the nation, less than 3%, there are steps servicemembers can take to ensure their ballots are cast. For example, once you receive a ballot, take your time to read and carefully follow the instructions provided before you mark your selections and return your vote. That will ensure that election administrators back home can count your ballot.

As a former voting assistance officer for my fellow sailors, I know that casting a ballot while serving abroad can be complex and confusing in determining the state deadlines and rules that apply to you. However, please know that your own voting assistance officers, FVAP and other branch-specific military voting support — as well as the EAC — can help you to navigate this important process. If you have a question, just ask. This is too important to procrastinate.

We sincerely appreciate your service and the continuing sacrifices that you and your family make in defense of democracy. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, please know that I am committed to helping you participate in it.

Donald Palmer serves on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. He is a military veteran, having retired from the U.S. Navy after two decades as an intelligence officer and judge advocate general.


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