Members of the U.S. military community, who have long relied on the mail-in system to exercise their civic duty while deployed abroad, are facing an extra layer of challenges this year.
Absentee voting has come under scrutiny during this presidential election amid the protracted coronavirus pandemic, and for some of those who serve in the armed forces, voting this year has brought mixed experiences.
"It was scary this year, given the current situation, because I had no idea if my ballot was tampered with before I turned it in. And there is no way for me to prevent that or even check it," one Missouri-native U.S. soldier, stationed in Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity due to media restrictions, told Fox News on Monday. "There is a Democrat and Republican team that sorts them out; the idea is that someone on your team won't mess with your ballot. I don't trust it; still, there is no other way for me."
That sentiment runs wide.
Another deployed service member sending his ballot to Ohio lamented late Monday from Afghanistan that his tracking indicated that his envelope was still sitting in a New York mailroom. Simultaneously, another said she rushed around to register for her ballot from Tennessee several weeks ago, yet still expressed concerns it had not reached its destination.
As a result of difficulties associated with international mailing for military members, which first began for the 1944 presidential election in the dawn days of World War ll, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act was passed in 1986 to ensure votes from abroad were counted, establishing deadlines and a grace period – sometimes as far along as a 10 days – post-Election Day.
"Any barriers experienced by a UOCAVA voter vary depending on their location, access to resources, training opportunities, and the availability of voter assistance. Voters have expressed concerns over returning their voted ballot by mail due to local country COVID-19 restrictions," explained David Beirne, Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) director.
While purporting to streamline the process, the legislation has still been subject to hundreds of lawsuits in decades past, and military voters are still beholden to the differing rules of their home states. For some service members, this has caused complications if one did not update their residence from their home state to the state they were stationed prior to deployment.
Beirne underscored that while states administer the elections and that there are differences in some requirements and deadlines, "the process is the same for all military members, their families and U.S. citizens residing overseas due to provisions established in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act."
"It all comes down not only to the state but the county," one soldier in Afghanistan said. "Some are more accommodating, easy to reach with questions, but I still lose confidence because my vote goes to a human being that is going to look at my ballot and have an opinion. I can check my ballot status online, but I can't review my vote."
Another U.S. Army soldier from Kentucky and currently in Germany lamented that he had not received the ballot as requested, which he attributed in part to the coronavirus mail issues and because he has been moving around so frequently, magnified by quarantine measures for those with or exposed to the novel contagion.
In contrast, Evette Kessler, a military spouse in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and a Nevada residence, said in her experience, 2020 was relatively smooth sailing.
"We received our absentee ballots, filled them out, and sent them off," she said. "From what I see over here, most of the people I know have cast their absentee ballot votes. Everyone wants to be heard in the most important election in our lifetime. The biggest worry so far has been the possibility of our ballots being thrown away by mail carriers."
A soldier based in Al Assad, Iraq – with a Florida voting registration – said that the process, for him, was pretty similar to that of 2016.
"The USO folks were really nice and helpful. Not a huge turnout during the base-wide voting assistance days, but the word certainly got out to the troops," he said.
Yet another told Fox News that their chain-of-command was of little help in navigating the process, and another in Okinawa, Japan said he only received his ballot – from Florida – last Friday despite applying weeks out.
"It was the first time in 15 years that my ballot took more than two months to get," he noted.
Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote, noted that only half the states allow the entire overseas and military voting process to be conducted online; registration and ballot request, online ballot delivery, and ballot return. Each state can differ in what they allow.
"Unfortunately, the downside is exposure to ballot hacking and identify theft. Ideally, no U.S. citizen should have to face such a trade-off in order to cast a ballot; rather, all voters should benefit from a paper trail, regardless if they vote domestically or from abroad. But voters have been forced to make that trade-off this year," she said, referring to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has propelled much of the world into some form of a lockdown.
Some military members say it has become a somewhat arduous task to keep up with the varying cut-off times for requesting ballots, sending ballots, whether online signatures are accepted, and what period of time has been carved out after the polls close for their time-stamped envelope to still count.
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have some form of an extended lag time for military voters, while the remaining others do not – and the onus lies on the individual to know their own state's rules.
"I never got my ballot. I only got my registration card," claimed one soldier from Tennessee. "I don't think it was malicious, just stupidity. The last time I was abroad was in 2014, and I didn't get my absentee ballot then, either."
While the average absentee transit time, according to the grassroots voter rights campaign Count Every Hero, is six days – those deployed to incredibly far-flung places, or stationed on a ship deep in a vast body of water, may have had to account for a significantly longer time period.
The coronavirus pandemic has only multiplied the mailing woes with service slowdowns – or even complete shuttering – across many pockets of the planet.
Indeed, members of the U.S. military routinely play a pivotal role in determining election outcomes. On the radar, in particular, is the critical swing state of Florida, which is home to a large portion of military families, and in the last presidential cycle had the highest number of military mail ballots included.
Provided that mail ballots are postmarked by November 3, the state of Florida will continue to count them through to November 13.
James Williamson, a retired Tampa-based U.S. Green Beret, said that in elections past, the process was "an early thing to do."
"Every unit has a voting assistance officer and I happened to be that guy that would help other soldiers with their ballots," he said. "The military encourages voting by absentee ballot and does everything they can to facilitate it."
Some military contractors, however, pointed to both 2012 and 2016 and expressed some dismay that it was a little more complicated for them.
"Votes were found at the APO (Army Post Office) four days after the 2012 election," one contractor recalled. "This time, some of the guys said they were sure to vote three weeks out."
Despite the woes, worries, global health crisis, condemnation, and concern that has cast a shadow of doubt on the postal procedure in recent months, there are indicators that turnout may be higher than ever among military members serving from abroad.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) reported that more than 55,000 troops' ballots were returned between September 1 and October 29. Beirne noted that "the current traffic to FVAP.gov for the 2020 calendar year is approximate twice the level of 2016," but he also stressed that "this does not necessarily correspond to an increased level of interest."
Traditionally, voter turnout among the actively deployed is higher than the national average, which in 2016 stood at just over 55%. But as per FVAP data, more than 930,000 ballots were disseminated last time, and the return rate was more than 68%.
And while the 2020 election undoubtedly sticks out as unprecedented in its polarity, with concerns percolating over pre-planned and unprecedented levels of violence irrespective of the outcome, the U.S. military – in the firing line far away – are among the most impacted by the decision's made by the next leader.
"We see the direct results of the current administration's success in regard to our mission here," the Afghanistan-deployed combat soldier added. "The election is nerve-wracking because you see the possibility that someone will be elected that will derail all that progress."
However, views vary and results remain to be seen.
A Military Times poll of active-duty troops in August showed former Vice President Joe Biden in a firm lead, with President Trump's approval rating well below what it had been at the start of his term.