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Every vote counts? For military members, only if they plan ahead

Members of the armed forces face a unique set of logistical challenges when serving in other states or countries: many lack the ability to simply go to the DMV to renew their driver’s licenses, filing taxes can be complex and voting in elections can be even more confusing.

"It is critically important to ensure that every voter entitled to an absentee ballot is given every chance to receive one,” said John Conklin, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.

According to the 2010 Post Election Survey Report to Congress, 85 percent of active duty military members were registered to vote, compared with 65 percent of the civilian voting age population. Due to the dilemmas associated with members of the military voting, approximately 120,000 active duty military personnel indicated they never received the absentee ballot they requested. 

Here’s a brief guide to the voting process as it relates to service men and women:


Why do states have different voting requirements?
The Constitution gives each state the right to determine the "time, place, and manner" of all elections, including federal elections. As a result, there is great variation from state to state.

“FVAP (Federal Voting Assistance Program) strongly supports the adoption of the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act (UMOVA) as offered by the interstate Uniform Law Commission,” said Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.

“UMOVA sets uniform deadlines for receiving registration forms and ballot applications, and sets a minimum standard for electronic transmission of registration forms and blank ballots.”

Seven states — Colorado, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Virginia — and the District of Columbia have adopted UMOVA. In Hawaii, the measure has passed the legislature and is awaiting the governor's signature.

Do I have to vote in my home of record’s election?
Short answer: no. But remember that a service member’s home of record and home of residence are two different things.

The home of record only applies to the state where a person physically entered the armed services and has nothing to do with where they reside, said Debi McGlothlin, the assistant installation voting officer at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell.

“You can live in Arizona but go on vacation to Minnesota and decide to join the army from there. The Army will hold your home of record to Minnesota, but your residency on your LES (Leave and Earnings Statement) is going to be Arizona.”

When in doubt, check your LES — the military version of a paystub. Then you’ll know what state you should be voting in.

How do I register to vote?
Service men and women should fill out Federal Post Card Application online, which serves as a voter registration form and an absentee ballot request. As part of this form, a “U.S. address for voting purposes” is required. This is your legal U.S. state of residence, as generally specified on your LES.

It can be more confusing for spouses and eligible dependents to determine their state of residence. A wife or husband won’t receive their own LES spelling that information out.

Family members and spouses should visit your post’s Installation Voter Assistance Office for help determining which state they should vote in.

You can also check individual state residency requirements online. 

FVAP.gov provides direct links to all 55 states and territories election websites where additional information is often available.

Can’t remember if you’re registered at another location?
After multiple moves it can be confusing to remember where you last registered to vote. If you think you registered at your home of record or another state you’ve lived in, there are multiple ways to check.

“FVAP.gov is the 2012 election resource for military service members and overseas citizens,” said Lainez of the Defense Department. “Everything service members need this election season is available.”

The site provides access to online registration and absentee ballot request systems, state-specific information and more.

Additionally, members of the military and their families can get direct contact information for more than 7,800 local election offices, including names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and where they can check their prior voter registration status.

Am I an absentee voter?
You can vote absentee in local, state and federal elections if you are a U.S. citizen 18 years or older and are an active-duty service member (or dependent) and do not physically live in the state where you registered to vote.

In order to request to vote absentee it’s important to fill out the Federal Post Card Application.

FVAP recommends that voters register to vote and request an absentee ballot in January of each year, or at least 90 days before Election Day.

“The ability for overseas voters to receive their ballot via e-mail has placed the ballot in their hands much earlier in the process and helped alleviates the problem of ballots being mailed back too late to be counted,” said Conklin from the New York State Board of Elections. “For the 2010 election we had the highest number of voters take advantage of the e-mail system to receive their ballots.”  

Military members and their families can get additional help from nearly 10,000 assistance officers worldwide. Service members may locate a nearby Installation Voting Assistance Office here.

“It is absolutely vital to have as much information as possible available online especially for the military and overseas voting community who can't just pick up the phone and call and ask questions,” Conklin said.

I can’t guarantee the ballot will return in time, or it never arrived.
While the postal service system is dependable to fixed locations overseas, like South Korea or Germany, having the additional challenge of service members constantly relocating around Afghanistan and other hostile areas can mean lengthy delays in delivering mail.  

States and territories are required to mail ballots at least 45 days before an election. If you have not received your ballot 30 days before the election, contact your local election official.

You can also vote using the back-up Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. But in order to be eligible to use this back-up ballot, you must be absent from your voting residence and have applied for a regular ballot before that state’s deadline or 30 days before the general election. Also, in order to choose this option you must not have received the original absentee ballot as requested.

If in doubt, contact your unit’s voting officer. Fort Campbell's McGlothlin said all units have a voting officer with them when they deploy who take the tools necessary — the hard copies of books and forms — along with them.

“They’re all educated and they’re all geared up to go, in their tough boxes, when they get on the plane,” she added.

Making your vote count
Unlike the employees of most companies, every eligible voter in the military and their family can vote for their actual commander in chief.

The men and women of our military are defending the interests of the United States all over the globe and a great deal of effort has been put forth to ensure they still have a voice at the ballot box on Election Day, McGlothlin said.  

“They fight for this right and they need to use it, it’s their voice that’s going to make their lives easier.”

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