News Analysis

Think Your Absentee Ballot Doesn’t Matter? Here’s Proof It Does

History is made by those who show up, the old cliche goes. For modern political life, the message is clear: Every vote matters, so long as you actually take the time to cast it. Indeed, modern U.S. government is full of examples of a few votes — or a single vote — making all the difference:

  • In 1994, both Republican Randall Luthi and Independent Larry Call finished with 1,941 votes in a Wyoming statehouse race. The race was decided by an unconventional tie-breaker: a ping pong ball bearing Luthi’s name pulled from a cowboy hat by then-Gov. Mike Sullivan, in accordance with state law. Luthi, the winner, loved it: “It is democracy at its best.” (Reader: It is not.)
  • A tied 2002 county commission race in Nevada was decided using a well-worn and appropriate Silver State tradition: drawing cards from a deck. Democrat R.J. Gillum’s jack of spades beat Republican Dee Honeycutt’s jack of diamonds for a seat on the Esmeralda County Commission. (Nine years later, a pair of Nevada city council primary candidates would also rely on high-card drawings — because neither wanted to shell out for a recount.)
  • The closest U.S. Senate race in history was decided by two votes out of 223,363 cast in New Hampshire in 1974. But close shaves aren’t out of style; in 2008, political newcomer Al Franken edged out incumbent Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman by 225 votes — out of 2,424,946 total ballots cast.
  • Just last year, control of the Virginia Legislature’s lower house was determined by a random drawing. Party power hinged on the result of Republican Delegate David Yancey’s reelection race. His opponent, Democrat newcomer Shelly Simonds, initially secured a one-vote victory in a recount, after Yancey had opened the day with a 10-vote lead. But then a single, previously discarded ballot was added to Yancey’s total, forcing the tie to be settled by drawing the winner’s name out of a stoneware bowl. That name was Yancey’s. Simonds conceded, but not happily: “I’m my usual angry, pissed-off self about the situation,” she told reporters.
  • And, of course, there was 2000, Bush v. Gore, and the case of the hanging chads.

Every vote matters. More to the point, your vote matters — no matter where you are on Election Day, from Port Hueneme to Paktia province. But just as a mighty army is only as good as its lines of supply, your vote only counts if you get it to the right place at the right time. Here’s a quick primer on how to make your absentee vote count, wherever you’re stationed, in two steps and two deadlines:

Step 1: Get registered and request your ballot


Capt. Jeffrey Ward, commanding officer of amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), registers for an absentee ballot with the assistance of Lt.j.g. Jessica Vaeth, Bonhomme Richard’s voting assistance officer on Aug. 26, 2016.

Most states require you to register to vote well in advance of the election in which you want to cast an absentee vote. The easiest way is to use a Federal Post Card Application. It’s a good idea to send in an FPCA at the beginning of every year, as well as when you move.

The FPCA can be filled out online, then downloaded and printed, or picked up in hard copy from your Voting Assistance Officer. Once you fill out the form, sign it and send to your election office. The PDF and hard copy even include a pre-addressed and postage-paid label — so you don’t have to worry about finding stamps.

Step 2: Receive, fill out, and send back your ballot

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeanette Mullinax

Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Knight, left, receives an absentee voter’s ballot from Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Jiles in the post office of the guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt, somewhere in the Arabian Sea, on Oct. 19, 2016.

If everything is hunky dory and you receive your ballot before the election, now you just have to fill it out. (If you don’t receive yours in time to vote, you can use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, a backup ballot that can be completed online or picked up in hard copy from your Voting Assistance Officer.)

The voting process from here is pretty straightforward — with clear instructions printed on your absentee ballot itself. Just fill it out, sign it where required (don’t forget this step!), and send it back. If you received your ballot by email or another electronic method, it should also come with instructions on how to fill it out and send it back.

How do you know your vote got counted, though?

Adam Weinstein

U.S. Army Maj. Ashantas Cornelius, from Macon, Ga., fills out her absentee ballot form while Pfc. Crystal Miller, from Auburn, N.Y., looks for her city’s mailing address during a voting assistance drive at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar, Oct. 16, 2008.

One of the prime reasons why deployed service members fail to exercise their voting rights is they assume that absentee ballots get delayed, lost, or “forgotten” somewhere along the way. Thankfully, we’re in the 21st century now, so it’s pretty easy to see if your ballot made it into the tally: You can check the status of your ballot after sending it back.

How long do I have to do all this?

U.S. Army/1st Lt. Edward Dieppa

Voting Assistance Officer 1st Lt. Chase Cappo of 2nd Squadron 14th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, collects voter registration forms from Soldiers in Hawaii and stresses the importance of voting to Soldiers of 2-14 CAV Nov. 9, 2015.

Good question! Election Day this year falls on November 6. But voting absentee means you have to do things earlier than everyone else. Check with the Federal Voting Assistance Program or your Voting Assistance Officer to get the deadlines that apply to you:

  • Deadline to register to vote (if you need to) and request an absentee ballot. Check your state’s deadline for registering and requesting your ballot. FVAP recommends doing it as early as possible to give plenty of time for your request to be processed and your ballot to be sent to you.
  • Deadline to send in your completed ballot: This will probably be well before Election Day, depending on where you’re voting from! FVAP recommends that you send your ballot in by October 2 if you’re underway on a ship; October 19, if you’re outside the U.S.; or October 26, if you’re stateside.

Every day, you get up to support and defend the Constitution. But don’t forget that the Constitution supports and defends you, too: The right to have your vote counted is what America’s all about. If you have questions about how to exercise that right, you can get answers from the Federal Voting Assistance Program at