For example, one question on the survey says, “Enter the total number of all UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act) ballots (including regular UOCAVA absentee ballots and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots (FWAB)) returned by UOCAVA voters and submitted for counting for the November 2014 general election. Please include both those ballots that were later counted and those that were rejected. Do not include ballots that were returned undeliverable.”
Lux, of Okaloosa County, said that federal write-in absentee ballots, which are rejected if they are not returned to the voter’s correct jurisdiction, create further confusion when counties send their reports to the EAC.
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 exactly 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, D.C., some election officials raised doubts about trusting their data.
“So, you’ve got a number in a box that looks like data,” said Keith Ingram, Texas director of elections. “But if you put any confidence in that number at all, you’re missing the boat.”
“I can guarantee you we are unable to educate local election officials as to what these categories are, and so, they’re plopping voters into various categories, and I would not have a lot of confidence that they’re hitting the right ones,” Michigan Director of Elections Christopher Thomas said at the meeting.
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 out.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program is part of the Department of Defense. It works alongside the Election Assistance Commission, using EAC 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.
“There is a data point out there that says 67 percent of active-duty members aren't confident that their ballot was counted, right? Now, when you take a look at that, you take a look at election data, it is impossible. There is no way that 67 percent of ballots are being rejected,” Boehmer said.
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 multiple continents and through multiple mailing systems.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program, under Boehmer’s direction, has recommended state election officials notify military voters when their ballots arrive and are counted. The advice is a pointed attempt to remedy perception among armed forces voters that their vote actually doesn’t count.
Capt. Yikalo Gebrehiwet, a company commander at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, emphasized the unique importance of the military vote. “It’s really part of the Army values, right? So we encourage soldiers to go out and vote, be a part of the community,” he said. “It’s really part of the Constitution and it’s what you raise your right hand to do, support and defend the Constitution. The best way to do that is by voting.”
The 2000 presidential election between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore brought critical scrutiny to overseas and absentee ballots in Florida. Attempts were made to throw out ballots that arrived past the election deadline or without a postmark. The Bush campaign joined legal efforts to force the counting of these ballots, which ultimately, were counted.
The chaos of the Florida recount led to the passing of the Help America Vote Act, which aimed to improve voting systems and increase voter access. It also established the EAC as a national clearinghouse of information on elections.
“The thing that spoke to me about military voting is we have lower numbers, as far as voter participation nationally,” said Tacinta Connor, who is married to an active-duty soldier at Fort Bragg.
“Sometimes it could be a bit confusing and therefore having the information and providing it to a wider base would increase our voting participation in this election and going forward,” said Connor, who volunteers with Fort Bragg’s voting assistance program.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program provides reports to Congress that help create and guide policy. In both its 2014 and 2015 reports to Congress, the program touted EAC initiatives as “successful.” But in the footnotes of its own 2014 report, that success is contradicted.
The footnote says questions on the survey could easily have been misinterpreted by those filling it out and that state employees might have entered incorrect numbers. It also claims the complex nature of the survey makes it difficult to keep ties between different parts of the survey clear, and that missing data from the survey could make it hard to interpret.
As unreliable as some consider the EAC data to be, it is still in use by the president and Congress. EAC survey results land on their desks through the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s report, the Government Accountability Office’s report and the EAC’s report.
“We use it to inform our communications efforts and then we use it to ultimately make decisions about what we need to do in the program,” said Boehmer, of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. He added that the survey data play an important part in making recommendations for the correction of voting issues.