Sunday, June 1, 2014

Voting and the American Military

With the presidential election campaigns beginning to ramp up in the next year, we thought it time to bring this posting front and center.  It was first posted to CivMilBlog in 2009 and was published by the Overseas Vote Foundation.  Additionally, it has gained some interest by several journalists resulting in several hours on the phone and considerable time answering emails about it.

I will be updating this information and, ultimately, expanding the entire story about getting the vote to American military personnel.  I recently began the process of more in-depth historical research and locating anecdotal experiences with soldiers voting. A book is envisioned to tell the entire story of the military and overseas citizen absentee voting.

So, here it is, again.  Your comments are welcome.


Voting and the American Military

Underlying our research project, here at CivMilBlog, into the political attitudes of American military enlisted personnel, and particularly at issue in it, are long-held assumptions about the voting behavior of the American military. The interest in how military personnel vote, however, is not matched with reliable data. To establish what is known at present, we will review the history of American military voting behavior and issues related to absentee voting. We begin by looking at the role the American Civil War played in the development of absentee voting for military personnel. Then follows, to the extent to which information is available, a more general examination intothe identification of military personnel with political parties and their participation in electoral matters during the century between the Civil War and the Vietnam War. We will conclude with an examination of legislation regarding military and overseas voting, with particular emphasis on two specific issues related to military voting: (1) the Federal Voter Assistance Program (FVAP) and how it has affected military voter turnout, and (2) military absentee balloting.

The Civil War and the Soldier Vote 

An historical review of American military voting cannot go far without mentioning the impact of the Civil War. For the first time since the end of the American Revolution, a national election was carried out while large numbers of soldiers and sailors were away from their home states. When the war began in 1861, the regular U.S. Army consisted of only 16,367 officers and men. The Navy listed just 9,057 officers and men on its rolls. By July 1, 1862, the Union Army had grown to 186,751 men and by the end of that year its numbers had reached more than half a million (527,204). By the time of the November 1864 general election, the Union Army consisted of approximately one million men in uniform, most of whom were stationed outside their home state. In the last year of the war, the Navy had about 59,000 personnel, nearly all of whom were assigned to ships at sea (Soley, 1887; Davis, 1973; Welcher, 1989; Geary, 1991; Hagan, 1991).

The election of 1862 was the first electoral contest in the history of the United States to raise widespread questions about the voting rights of soldiers and sailors. Before then, with a small regular Army and an even smaller Navy, few local government officials were concerned about absentee voting issues, it being expected that all citizens would simply vote in their local precincts. Many state constitutions restricted voting to locations within state boundaries. Such limitations effectively made voting by soldiers assigned to locations away from their home state illegal. Some state constitutions permitted voting from locations away from the home precinct if the voter was away on official state or federal business. Soldiers, however, were generally excluded from that provision (Benton, 1915; Winther, 1944).

By the election of 1864, steps had been taken by most states to ensure that their soldiers in the field could vote. Some states permitted soldiers to vote by proxy, with vote choices sent home to an individual who would cast votes on the soldier’s behalf. Wisconsin was the first state to legalize absentee voting in 1862, and some states went so far as to send election commissioners to their state regiments in the field to monitor the proceedings.

Support for such measures was not uniform, however, with Democrats generally in opposition on the assumption that soldiers would vote for the Republican Party candidates. The Illinois state legislature, controlled by Democrats, refused to pass a law permitting soldiers to vote by absentee ballot. Indiana refused to permit any soldier to vote. In September 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote to General William T. Sherman, who was at that time in Atlanta, Georgia, encouraging him to permit Indiana's soldiers to return home to vote in the state elections (Lincoln, 1894). This pattern of partisan support for military absentee balloting, based on expectations of which political party such measures would support, would be repeated in the future.

Despite provisions by most states, efforts by the Democratic Party ensured widespread disenfranchisement of Union soldiers. Only about 150,000 of the army's more than 1 million soldiers were able to cast absentee ballots from the field in the 1864 general election. However, many soldiers were able to return to their home states to vote in that election and thus did not submit absentee ballots. No record was kept of the number of soldiers who voted in their home states. Of those soldiers who were able to cast an absentee ballot, 119,754 (or 78 percent) voted for Abraham Lincoln, while only 34,291 (22 percent) voted for McClellan, the Democratic Party candidate (Zornow, 1954; Campbell, 2006).  

Party Identification and Political Participation 

Information about the party identification of military personnel during the century following the American Civil War is fragmentary. However, there are clues to be found by examining veterans’ organizations and the legislative actions taken by the Republican and Democratic Parties with respect to military voting, and by exploring the assumptions made about which party would most benefit from encouraging the military vote.

Shortly after the Civil War, in 1866, a group of northern veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The first modern veterans’organization, it essentially functioned as part of the Republican Party by supporting the campaigns of former Union soldiers running for political office. Following a decline in membership which began after 1872 and reached a low of about 26,000 in 1876, the GAR shifted its emphasis to supporting appropriate pensions for veterans and widows of veterans. By 1890, membership had surged to 409,489 and the GAR's influence and support of the Republican Party remained as strong as ever. The group claimed it had saved the Republic and condemned the Democratic Party as Copperheads, traitors who had been against the war and who would have permitted the southern states to secede from the Union (Dearing, 1952; McConnell, 1992).

While veterans of the American Civil War, as represented by the Grand Army of the Republic, were strongly Republican, the party identification of active-duty military personnel during the late nineteenth century is not as clear.  Officers maintained close relationships with members of Congress and state governors, but such behavior was mostly geared to acquire rank or obtain positions within the small Army of the post-war years.  There is little evidence to suggest that officers publicly expressed any particular party identification, but since most were Civil War veterans, they were likely to be sympathetic to the Republican Party.  There is evidence, however, to suggest that enlisted personnel were largely apolitical, not participating in any partisan activity and likely not voting.

A large percentage of active-duty enlisted personnel during the late 19th century were recent immigrants, comprising as much as a quarter of the Army and even more in the Navy (Gould, 1869; White, 1972; Harrod, 1978; Valle, 1980; Kohn, 1981). While immigrants were often permitted (and even recruited) to vote in the large cities and tended to identify with the Democratic Party, soldiers had little access to the electoral process because they were assigned to remote posts in the American West, fighting in the Indian wars (Rickey, 1999; Campbell, 2006).  Most enlisted personnel during the later 19th century were undereducated, came from economically deprived backgrounds, had criminal records, or were running from the law. With soldiers generally considered to be social outcasts, there was little public or political interest in supporting measures to enable soldiers to vote. An October 1866 editorial in The Nation argued that soldiers were not worthy of the right to vote and should not be granted suffrage as they rarely had opportunities to read or to educate themselves on electoral matters and argued further that allowing them to vote would open up new avenues for election fraud. Most worrisome to the editorialist was that the soldier harbored a “spirit of despotism” which would be “incompatible with the preservation of free institutions” (Ought Soldiers To Vote?, 1866, October 25). The combination of these factors ensured that the enlisted man in the decades following the Civil War had little opportunity to participate in elections, regardless of his desires in the matter (Utley, 1973, personal interview April 8, 2008).

Since the end of the Civil War, American military personnel had generally been apolitical, not only in terms of public support for one political party or another but also in terms of whether they voted at all. The Spanish-American War did not involve long-term or large-scale military deployments and the brief 18-month involvement of U.S. troops in World War I encompassed only the 1918 mid-term elections and thus did not involve a presidential vote.

Between the Civil War and the years following World War I, the nature of the American military had not changed significantly. Despite short-term increases in size during the Spanish-American War and World War I, by the 1920s the Army and the Navy were once again relatively small organizations, with most soldiers and sailors assigned to remote outposts or kept onboard ships, largely isolated from society and uninvolved in political activity. The apolitical nature of the military continued through the 1930s, with usually less than30 percent of the officers voting, indicating their lack of involvement in partisan politics as well. General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1939 until 1945, evenopenly questioned whether it was ethical for a military officer tovote for a presidential candidate (Pogue, 1963; Clifford, 1991), and General Dwight Eisenhower apparently never voted until after he left active duty, believing that the military should maintain a strict distance from politicians (D’Este, 2002). There is no data on enlisted voting during that period, but is assumed to have been ateven lower ratesthan for officers.

The rate of voting by soldiers declined further during the war years of 1942 to 1945 and remained low until the early 1950s, when participation began gradually to increase. The officer voting turnout, however,had reached only 40 percent by 1956 and the enlisted turnout rate was probably even lower (Van Riper & Unwalla, 1965; Alvarez et. al., 2007). Military personnel likely did not vote for a reason long common to the armed forces: soldiers and sailors were often stationed at remote bases or overseas with limited access to mail. The stationing of individuals away from home and out of communication resulted in their paying less attention to electoral matters at home and made access to voting procedures problematic at best.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program and Military Voter Turnout

The apolitical nature of armed forces personnel meant that interest in assuring the military could vote remained low to non-existent for quite some time. The ability of the soldier or sailor to vote remained in the hands of the individual states. Although most states had enacted laws permitting military personnel to vote during World War I, the varying state laws made it difficult for military personnel to cast a vote. By 1940, most states required registration to vote, but in 18 of them, registration had to be in person and soldiers were subject to that rule. Adding to the barriers to voters, most southern states also had a poll tax, with only Mississippi and South Carolina exempting soldiers from having to pay it. Some states had constitutions that did not permit absentee voting, and of those that did permit the practice, some specifically prevented soldiers and sailors from taking advantage of the provision. Other restrictions that made it difficult for military personnel to vote included the requirement to obtain affidavits sworn before an officer or to obtain a proxy. Further complicating the matter for deployed troops were the varying deadlines for filing absentee ballots.

In 1941, the beginning of direct American involvement in World War II, no coordination of access to voting for military personnel existed at the federal level. The War Department required that “everything possible” be done “to enable the personnel of the Army to exercise their right to vote” but did little more than direct soldiers to “write to the Secretary of State of their home state requesting information under the laws of that state." Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed his doubts: “I am not at all certain that much can be done about it,” he said. He suggested that the Army and Navy “remind the boys by posting notices…summarizing the laws in each state" (Anderson, 2001). Apparently, few soldiers were able to negotiate the complex steps required to cast a vote and in November 1942, the first mid-term election conducted during World War II, only one-half of one percent of the five million active-duty service personnel voted (Should Soldiers Have the Vote, 1943).

The first attempt by the national level of government to increase military voter turnout came in July 1942, when Rep. Robert L. Ramsay (D-WV) introduced a national military voting rights bill, which called for special elections on military bases to be supervised by the Secretary of State in each state in which the base was located. The War Department and the National Association of Secretaries of State opposed the bill, as it was introduced. Major changes were made to the bill and provisions were ultimately made for the Army and Navy to provide postcards for each military voter to send to their individual Secretaries of State. The state secretaries, upon receipt of the card, were required to send the soldier a ballot with the names of those running for federal offices. Included was an oath, to be sworn in front of an officer, that the applicant was a qualified voter under the laws of the particular state.

The bill was opposed largely by southern members of Congress because it was said to violate states' rights and it included a provision to eliminate poll taxes. One southern Congressman argued that voting was not a matter of right, but rather a privilege solely within the purview of the state (Anderson, 2001). Despite significant differences within the Democratic party, largely splitting along regional lines with the southern members of Congress voting against it, the Soldier Voting Act of 1942 (P.L.712-561) passed both houses of Congress on September 16, 1942, and was signed into law by President Roosevelt.

As the 1944 general election approached, some Democratic Party leaders saw an opportunity to benefit from the military vote and pressed for more aggressive military voter legislation. Simultaneously, Republican leaders believed that a reduced military vote would bring advantage to their party and, in a move opposite of that taken by the party in the Civil War, opposed changes to the Soldier Voting Act. The Democratic Party was able to overcome Republican resistance and amendments to the 1942 law were passed and became law on April 1, 1944. The amendments consisted largely of recommendations to the states in the form of requests to ensure all soldiers and sailors were provided with an opportunity to vote. There was little in the form of substantive requirements, but it did include a provision for a limited federal ballot (APSA, 1952; Anderson, 2001).

Of about 9.2 million voting-age personnel on active duty in 1944, 4.4 million requested ballots for the 1944 general election and about 2.6 million returned them, a 29.1 percent voting turnout rate based on the then-minimum voting age of 21. In the same year, the turnout rate among eligible civilians was about 60 percent. The military absentee vote comprised about 5.6 percent of the total popular vote for president. No data exists on the voting patterns of military personnel who happened to be in the United States and in their home precincts (APSA, 1952).

While no data was collected by the government regarding military voting in the 1946, 1948, or 1950 elections, it was generally assumed that military voter turnout had decreased after the 1944 election. In 1951, President Truman asked the American Political Science Association to convene a special committee to examine service voting and make recommendations for legislative and administrative action. The report, published in 1952, resulted in passage of the Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955 (P.L. 84-296), which provided for voting support not only for overseas-based military personnel but for overseas-stationed civilian government employees as well.

This law also required the President to designate the head of an executive department as the coordinator of federal functions described in the law. President Eisenhower designated the Secretary of Defense, who subsequently delegated authority to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, as coordinator of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). The Director of the FVAP was responsible for ensuring that all overseas citizens, whether they are military personnel or employees of the federal government, are provided with the necessary information to be able to vote in all elections.

In 1975, drawing on 20 years of experience, including the Vietnam War, Congress passed the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act (P.L.94-203)which repealed and updated the 1955 law to clarify reporting requirements and procedures. It also guaranteed absentee registration and voting rights for citizens outside the United States regardless of whether they maintained a U.S. residence or address. Since then, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 (UOCAVA) (P.L. 99-410) has further updated the earlier acts of Congress and ensured certain rights for overseas citizens as well as military and other government personnel assigned overseas, including the unrestrained ability to vote. It specifically directed states to provide overseas personnel with the ability to vote in all elections, including general, primary, special, and runoff elections. Within the 1986act was a renewed requirement thatthe President report to Congress on the effectiveness of the program following each election.

Military voter turnout did not immediately change following the FVAP’s inception in 1955. However, as the 1976 law was passed, with renewed interest on the part of Congress, which required reports by the Secretary of Defense on the effectiveness of the program, voting participation bymilitary personnelhasincreased dramatically. The turnout rate by military personnel in 1976 was less than 40 percent, some 15 percent lower than the civilian turnout rate, but by 1984 the voting turnout rate by military personnel reached 55 percent which, for the first time, exceeded the national voter turnout rate. By 1992, the military voter turnout rate was 67 percent. A decline in military turnout was noted in the 1996 election (64 percent), but the U.S. turnout rate also dropped significantly that year, to 49 percent from 55 percent in the 1992 election.

The required report to Congress following the 2000 general election showed that 69 percent of all military personnel cast ballots, as compared to 54.2 percent of voting-eligible civilian population. In 2004, the military percentage increased to 79 percent, with 72 percent of overseas personnel and 76 percent of those within the continental United States voting, while the turnout rate among civilians that year was 60.1 percent. Slight increases in both the military and civilian voter turnout are expected in the 2008 general election, and the gap between military and civilian voter turnout rates will probably continue to increase somewhat. 

Absentee Balloting

A large body of literature exists describing the changes in absentee voting laws, beginning with the flurry of activity during and immediately after World War I on the part of individual states to grant their soldiers an absentee voting capability. The subsequent writing on the subject was descriptive in nature, generally concentrating on the general processes within each state and on legal and constitutional issues, with little directly relating to military access to absentee balloting (Ray, 1914, 1918a, 1918b, 1919, 1926; Steinbicker 1938). The experience of granting absentee voting rights to soldiers during World War II resulted in some additional comment about procedure and discussion of the congressional partisan infighting that occurred in producing the 1942 bill and the 1944 amendment (Winther, 1944; Martin, 1945). As mentioned above, the American Political Science Association produced a report in 1952, at the request of President Truman, describing the process and for the first time in detail presented some of the barriers preventing soldiers and sailors from actually being able to execute a vote by absentee ballot (APSA, 1952; Keyssar, 2000).

More recently, research has concentrated on methods to increase absentee voting, primarily by reducing the administrative and practical operational barriers to voting, but the unique problems in accessing the overseas military community have not been discussed in detail (Dubin & Kalsow 1996a, 1996b; Oliver 1996; Patterson & Caldeira 1985).

Following the 2000 general election and the attention generated by the handling of absentee ballots in Florida, the specific problems with balloting by military personnel came into the spotlight and prompted detailed recommendations and analysis of alternative methods of casting votes, including various electronic methods (Alvarez et. al 2007, 2008; Hall 2008). The Government Accountability Office (GAO) launched its own investigation, and in a statement before a congressional subcommittee on military and overseas citizens’ absentee voting, David M. Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States, reported that multiple difficulties were posed to absentee balloting by the wide variation in state laws, complex election laws, and different deadline requirements (GAO 2001, May; Hall 2008). In response to some of the GAO's observations and recommendations, the FVAP developed an electronic registration and voting experiment in time for the 2004 election, but the system was not used due to concerns raised about the system’s security (GAO 2006, September).

Some have argued that military personnel have not and do not face difficulties invoting (Mazur 2007). However, studies conducted since the 2000 general election show that both civilians and military personnel living overseas have a more difficult time casting absentee ballots than those casting absentee ballots in the United States. Citizens living overseas report having difficulty in registering to vote and in meeting deadlines. Furthermore, evidence from studies on absentee balloting in California shows that overseas ballots were twice as likely not to be returned and three times more likely to be challenged as compared to non-overseas absentee ballots. For example, about half of the UOCAVA absentee ballots sent to overseas personnel were not returned. Of those cast, just fewer than 10 percent were challenged and not counted, principally because they arrived after the deadline (Cain et. al 2008; Alvarez et. al 2005, 2007). However, there appears to be little partisan connection with respect to the UOCAVA voters who fail to return their ballots or which ballots are ultimately counted (Alvarez et. al 2007).

The numerous problems posed to overseas voters by the myriad state laws and restrictions have not gone unaddressed by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has enforced UOCAVA by bringing suitsagainst various states in federalcourt. In 2006 alone, lawsuits were filed against Alabama (United States v State of Alabama, 2006), Connecticut (United States v State of Connecticut 2006), and North Carolina (United States v. State of North Carolina, 2006) based on complaintsabout how each handled election deadlines, transmittedballots to overseas voters, and establisheddeadlines for receiving absentee ballots (DOJ 2006, June 8).

In the Alabama case, the United States filed a Notice of Dismissal once Alabama enacted legislation to extend the time between primary and run-off elections to 6 weeks, and allowed UOCAVA voters' ballots to be received and counted until noon on the seventh day after the run-off election. In the Connecticut case, a stipulated agreement between the DOJ and the state resolved the issue by permitting the use of the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot by UOCAVA voters and allowed extra time for the receipt and counting of ballots. The agreement also required the Secretary of the State of Connecticut to work with the DOJ to develop procedures to ensure compliance with UOCAVA in future elections for federal office. In the North Carolina Case, the DOJ and the state initially entered into a consent decree in time for the May 2006 primary elections. The two parties eventually agreed to a dismissal of the consent decree after North Carolina enacted legislation to provide permanent relief for future elections by expanding the time between primary and run-off elections from four to seven weeks and extended voters' opportunity to send and receive absentee ballots via facsimile to all categories of voters protected by UOCAVA (DOJ 2008, July 25). Despite these agreements between the federal and state governments, problems for overseas voters continue to surface (Hall 2008).


Voting participation by American military personnel has been minimal for most of the history of the United States. The primary reason is wide variances in state laws that present legal and practical barriers to remotely stationed military personnel and serve to restrict access to a ballot. Coordinated action on the part of the federal government to reduce those barriers began during World War II but only became effective with the enactment of the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986. The passage of legislation previously enacted by Congress during wartime years exhibited strong partisan differences, apparently based on views about which political party the law would benefit electorally. It was only when legislation was considered during peacetime years, as with the Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955, that legislators acted in a more non-partisan manner. Other than during the Civil War, there is little evidence to indicate that the American military’s preference for one political party or another was any different from that of the general population.

The primary result of federal absentee voting legislation and enforcement action by the executive branch has been to increase military voting participation dramatically. While historically, the military turnout rate has been significantly lower than that of the civilian population, in recent years military voting exceeds that of the general population by more than 15 percent.

End Notes:

[1] Voter Age Population (VAP) obtained from United States Election Project, George Mason University. Data retrieved 12 January 2009 from Military voter turnout rates were obtained by personal correspondence from the Federal Voting Assistance Program, Department of Defense on March 2, 2009.

[2] Federal Voting Assistance Program, Seventeenth Report, October 2005. The data for the FVAP reports to Congress are generated by a survey conducted by the RAND Corporation. Voter turnout is self-reported and so may be inflated to some extent; however, even taking into account such over-reporting, it is apparent that the military as a whole votes at a significantly higher rate than does the general population, even in mid-term elections.

[3] Voter Eligible Population (VEP) obtained from United States Election Project, George Mason University. Data retrieved 12 January 2009 from Military voter turnout rates obtained from Federal Voting Assistance Program, Department of Defense.

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18 U.S.C. § 609 (1948).

Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975 (P.L.94-203) (42 U.S.C. 1973dd et seq (repealed 1986))

Soldier Voting Act of 1942 (P.L.712-561) (50 U.S.C. § 301 to 303 (repealed 1955))

Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-410) (42 U.S.C. § 1973ff to ff6) 

Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955 (P.L. 296-656) (42 U.S.C. 1973cc (repealed 1975))

List of Cases

United States v State of Alabama, (M.D. ALA, May 1, 2006) (No. 2:06-cv-392-SRW). (Accessed March 12, 2009).  

United States v State of Connecticut, (D. Conn. Aug 2, 2006) (No. 3:06-cv-1192). (Accessed March 12, 2009).

United States v State of North Carolina, (E.D.N.C. Mar. 20, 2006) (No. 5:06-cv-00118H). (Accessed March 12, 2009).


This material is based on material previously published by Donald S. Inbody.  Original source is available at:  All rights are retained by the original author and may not be republished in any form unless fully attributed to the author, Donald S. Inbody.

Donald S. Inbody

Department of Political Science

Texas State University

601 University Drive

San Marcos, TX 78666