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Military personnel and their families know it can be a challenge to cast an election ballot from beyond U.S. borders. I’ve experienced this firsthand, too, which is why I am committed to using my post at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to improve the voting experience for our uniformed service personnel and their families.

My experience with overseas voting sheds light on the long-term nature of this challenge. In the mid-1990s I was living and working in Siberia and applied for an absentee ballot. Eight months after Election Day, it arrived in an opened envelope that had been stamped by Russian officials. More than a decade and a half later, I was working for the Justice Department in Iraq. I requested an absentee ballot for the 2010 election, but it never came. Fortunately, I was scheduled to get back home to the United States in early November and made it in time to cast my ballot in person on Election Day.

While this was possible for me, it certainly is not a viable option for the vast majority of our men and women in uniform serving on nuclear submarines far below the surface of the ocean, in remote outposts in the Middle East, or stationed on bases around the globe.

Our military personnel and their family members who are with them deserve better. The Election Assistance Commission works with the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to provide uniformed service personnel and their families with specific information on getting ballots and returning them in time to be counted, and we also have a more general focus on improving the overall voting experience. We know that these improvements are not only necessary, but are important in increasing participation from this important segment of U.S. voters.

Based on data collected by both the EAC and FVAP, we know that in 2014 states transmitted 420,094 ballots to voters who are guaranteed the right to successfully cast a ballot under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). While the U.S. government doesn’t formally count the number of American citizens who live overseas, various organizations estimate that eligible population to be between 2-and-a-half million to 8 million, and possibly more. Almost half of the ballots that were transmitted were sent to uniformed service members and the rest were sent to civilian citizens. Of the UOCAVA ballots transmitted, only 34.6 percent were returned and submitted for counting, a slight increase from the 30.2 percent in 2010. States reported counting 137,683 UOCAVA ballots, or 94.6 percent of the total submitted for counting, and rejecting 8,492 ballots. The most common reason given for rejecting a UOCAVA ballot was that the ballot was not received on time.

While this data shows some progress from 2010, it also demonstrates a great deal of room for improvement. Sadly, by whatever estimate is used, these figures reveal that our most disenfranchised voters continue to be our uniformed servicemembers and civilians living overseas.

To inform our efforts in meeting this challenge, the EAC and FVAP coordinate our statutory requirements to survey election officials about UOCAVA voters’ experiences. In previous election cycles, the EAC and FVAP collected UOCAVA data in separate surveys, but since 2014 we have combined the surveys to eliminate redundancies and lessen the overall burden on states in providing these important data points. We look forward to continuing to work with FVAP to use the 2016 election administration data to reduce obstacles to voting, expand UOCAVA voter awareness and outreach initiatives for all Americans covered under this designation, and enhance measures of effectiveness and participation. This year’s survey will not only produce hard data to help us measure efforts to successfully engage and serve military voters, it will provide guideposts for the improvements election officials can make in preparation for the next election cycle.

The EAC and FVAP partnership is reflective of our commission’s commitment to improving the voter experience for military personnel and their families. As part of our BeReady16 efforts over the past year, we visited military bases in the United States, created online resources and web videos targeting overseas voters, and advised the U.S. Postal Service and other government agencies on best practices to increase military voter participation and enhance their voter experience.

This year, the EAC is continuing its efforts to make sure every American, including those overseas, has the ability to successfully cast an election ballot and have it counted. I look forward to visiting additional military bases and meeting with military personnel to hear more about their voting experiences. We are committed to partnering with FVAP and other federal agencies to turn the commission’s survey findings into tangible changes that increase the ability for servicemembers and their families to vote and improve the absentee-ballot voting process.

I remember sitting in Siberia on Election Day knowing that I had been denied the ability to participate in an election and I vowed to never let that happen again to me and or any other American. Elections are the very foundation of our representative democracy, and those who serve every day to protect our republic deserve the right to shape it.

Christy McCormick has served on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission since 2014. She previously was a senior trial attorney in the voting section of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, where she worked with election officials to monitor compliance with the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act and the Voting Rights Act. From 2009-2010, she served as the senior attorney adviser and acting deputy rule of law coordinator in the Office of the Rule of Law Coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where she worked on the Iraq national elections and on rule-of-law matters.

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