How the fight over mail-in ballots threatens to undermine the votes of American troops

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The election has been on Scott Cooper’s mind a lot these days. Not the one coming up next week, but one many years ago when he was a major in the Marine Corps flying missions in support of ground forces and convoys overseas.

"I was thinking the other day about some other elections, and talking to some friends,” said Cooper, a former Marine aviator who retired from the Corps in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel, and went on to found Veterans For American Ideals, a non-partisan political advocacy group. “You know, the most significant election in my own lifetime was in December 2005. And that wasn't an American election. It was the Iraqi election.”

When Cooper was deployed to Al Anbar province in Iraq with VMAQ-1, a Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, the elections were overshadowed by fears of violence, concerns that Iraqi citizens would denounce the results as fraudulent, and worries that voters wouldn’t have the patience to see the process through.

“How ironic is it that I feel those same three things today?" Cooper said.

Then-Maj. Scott Cooper in Iraq in 2005.

Then-Maj. Scott Cooper in Iraq in 2005.

This time around, it’s the U.S. election that’s been shadowed in doubt and uncertainty, following a presidential race that has been defined by its hyper-partisanship and long-held norms of peaceful transition of power and mail-in voting being called into question or politicized. 

“President Trump has repeatedly claimed that the elections would be marred by fraud, especially in relation to absentee and particularly postal voting," according to a report released in October from Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

The report’s authors expressed “grave concerns about allegations from a sitting president casting doubt on the democratic process without presenting any evidence that the integrity of the election process could be systematically jeopardized.”

As recently as Monday, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to suggest there were “discrepancies with mail-in ballots” and demanded that states not count ballots after the Nov. 3 Election Day, before doubling down on the demand again on Wednesday at a news conference in Las Vegas, according to Huffington Post.

The claim that the country’s absentee voting system is compromised, and the subsequent demand that the counting of ballots should cease after election day has particular significance for service members.

"Absentee voting was literally created to allow Union troops to vote during the Civil War,” said Fred Wellman, a retired Army officer and senior advisor for veterans affairs with The Lincoln Project, which opposes Trump. “The idea that in 2020 our service members’ votes might go uncounted for political reasons is appalling and should anger every American. Those that defend our freedom to vote should be able to know their vote counts."

When we talk about military voters, we’re talking about absentee ballots

For Cooper, from the time he joined in 1993 until he retired in 2013, he voted absentee in every election. It wasn’t until 2014 that he cast his first in-person ballot.

That’s pretty common: The vast majority of service members who vote, do so by mail, according to a report by the Federal Voting Assistance Program noting that roughly three-quarters of active-duty military personnel who voted in the 2012 and 2016 elections did so by absentee ballot. That ratio went up to 79 percent in the 2018 election.

If you look at the military as its own voting bloc, there are approximately 1.3 million active-duty service members, with an additional 700,000 spouses and dependents, according to data provided by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. As of June 2020, approximately 172,000 active-duty personnel were serving overseas, which means that if they voted in this year’s election, they’d likely be doing so by absentee ballot.

Due to the challenges of sending and receiving mail internationally, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act was created in 1986 to ensure the votes were counted, set deadlines for when they could arrive from overseas and allowed for them to be counted even if they arrived after Election Day.

While mail-in voting in the military may conjure up images of war-weary soldiers shipping their ballots home from a combat zone — which is how it got its start in the Civil War — it’s not just used by deployed personnel. For many service members, they spend their time in uniform serving outside of their home state, where most of them would have registered to vote, which leaves voting by mail the only option.

“It is important to note that eligibility under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act kick in when that active-duty service member or dependent is absent from their voting jurisdiction, not just overseas,” said David Beirne, the director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

This means that if you enlisted out of a swing state like Florida, but you’re now stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, and you never updated your voter registration, then you’re going to be voting absentee in this election.

And the turnout of absentee military voters is significant. During the 2016 presidential election, more than 252,000 service members sent in their ballots by mail according to a report from the U.S. Elections Administration.

But the thing about mail-in ballots is that they take time to arrive, which is why states have set their own deadlines about when they will be counted under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act.

It’s also worth noting that this year’s election is likely to feature much higher numbers of mail-in votes due to the ongoing novel-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and is expected to have high voter turnout in general. All of which may delay the ballot-counting process.

The average transit time for an absentee ballot is six days, according to a report put out by Count Every Hero, a campaign by the grassroots voter rights advocacy group Represent Us that aims to ensure military votes are counted in the 2020 election. That said, the timeline is dependent on where your ballot is coming from. If you're on a ship, then the Federal Voting Assistance Program recommends service members send their ballots back by Oct. 5, or if you're stationed overseas, it shifts to Oct. 13. However, to account for the delay, some states have grace periods for military voters.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have extended deadlines for military voters to account for the delays facing overseas ballots.

“Each state establishes clear absentee ballot deadlines, including some extended deadlines for military and overseas citizens to return their ballots after postmarking their ballots by election day,” Lisa Lawrence, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Task & Purpose. “All ballots that are timely received, pursuant to state law, will be considered by election officials for either acceptance or rejection.”

Just how pivotal are military absentee ballots?

Given the outsize role that absentee voting plays for service members, President Trump’s demand that ballots stop being counted when polls close on Nov. 3 has stoked fears among advocates and election scholars that military personnel in some states could have their votes discounted.

“Federal law protects military and overseas voters and many states give extra time for military ballots to arrive and be counted,” Richard Hasen, a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California-Irvine, told Task & Purpose. “No state has a final or official count on election night; the full counting takes days or weeks. It is true that races are sometimes unofficially called by news organizations on election night or soon thereafter, but those are just predictions of what the official count will likely show.”

“Trump’s calls to stop counting on election night, if followed, would disenfranchise military voters allowed to vote under state and federal law,” Hasen said. “Fortunately, the president has no role to play in dictating which ballots are counted and when.”

That decision is up to the states.

"Traditionally most states even if they are in-hand states, where the ballots have to be in at the close of the polls, have a specific carved out allowance for military and overseas voters to have their ballots come in after the fact," Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor with the Democracy Fund, told Task & Purpose.

But for voters, it’s growing increasingly difficult to keep up to date on exactly what the rules are, even as the election looms around the corner.

“You have these various court cases and executive orders from governors that have either expanded the ability for ballots (if they're postmarked) to come in after election day so they can be counted, or restrict those ballots coming in after election day,” Patrick said.

“Some of these things are still in the courts and we don't have a definitive answer and it can be a real challenge because voters aren't sure how they should proceed," she said, adding that it leads to a "chaotic situation."

And these ballots, delayed though they may be, can have a significant impact.

Take Florida, a pivotal swing state in past elections. According to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission's Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), in 2016 Florida received the second-highest number of overseas ballots — 116,674 — and of those, 50,036 were from service members and their family members.

That number increased in the 2018 general election, according to that year’s EAVS report, with 146,343 overseas voters sending ballots home to Florida, 96,010 of which came from service members and their families.

Scott Cooper near Ramadi, Iraq in 2005.

Scott Cooper near Ramadi, Iraq in 2005.

For historical context, consider the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which came down to 537 votes in Florida and swung the election in Bush's favor.

“Disenfranchising even one of the thousands of service members and their families by not counting their valid ballots that have been postmarked by Election Day would be a grave insult to the sacrifices they make each and every day,” Ellen Moorhouse, the deputy communications director for Represent Us.

And for Cooper, who’s long since left active duty, the realization that absentee voting has become a political football is disconcerting.

“Why I'm so passionate about it and frustrated by a lot of the rhetoric is that [voting] is something that's sacred, you know? Especially for someone that's wearing the cloth of the nation.”

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