Political Barriers to Military Voting: A Brief Historical Overview
By Dr. Donald S. Inbody
The notion that American citizens living beyond the borders of the United States should be able to vote has not always been commonly held. It was generally assumed that voting occurred only in local precincts. However, despite much progress in this area, issues remain that pose serious barriers to efficiently enabling overseas voters to register and to cast absentee ballots. These issues are largely caused by the fragmentation of election laws between the various states and territories as well as a general lack of understanding of the real problems encountered by those who live overseas.
In short, the American tradition of states being solely responsible for voting eligibility and for the manner in which elections are conducted has conspired to ensure that citizens who live overseas and military personnel in particular, are more frequently disenfranchised than citizens who live in their home states. The principal political barriers to ensuring that overseas citizens have an unencumbered right to vote are two-fold – (1) partisan politics in general and, (2) the wide variance in local and state election laws and administration. While federal legislation has made significant progress toward enfranchisement, success has not been as great as reported and much remains to be accomplished to highlight and overcome the unique barriers placed on military voters.
Partisan Politics and Presidential Elections
The first serious attempts to enfranchise military voters began during the American 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. The mid-term 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 only 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 1914; 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 similarly refused to permit soldiers 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).
In the decades following the Civil War there was little political incentive to reengage in legislation enhancing the voting rights of military personnel and Americans living overseas. 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. 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 (Rickey 1999; Campbell 2006). 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 (The Nation, 1866).” The combination of these attitudes along with a general lack of political concern ensured that military personnel did not vote in any great numbers.
Military Voting in the 20th Century – Some Progress At Last
Although most states enacted laws permitting military personnel to vote during World War I, the varying state laws made it difficult, as a practical matter, 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.
The first federal level attempt to facilitate military voting 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. 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 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.
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.
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, which provided for voting support not only for overseas-based military personnel but for overseas-stationed civilian government employees as well (APSA 1952).
This law 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 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) 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 1986 act was a renewed requirement that the President report to Congress on the effectiveness of the program following each election.
There is evidence that participation by overseas military personnel in elections increased since the passage of UOCAVA. However, as Claire Smith mentions in her research note, reported success has likely been exaggerated. States continue to pose barriers to voting by requiring short turn-around times for return of absentee ballots – often impossible to comply with for personnel assigned to war zones – and differential application of regulations to absentee ballots mailed from overseas locations as opposed to those mailed domestically.
While some writers have argued that military personnel have not and do not face difficulties in voting (Mazur 2007), most studies 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, about 10 percent were challenged and not counted, principally because they arrived after the deadline (Cain et. al 2008; Alvarez et. al 2007, 2008).
Recent 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. 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. 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, affirmed that multiple difficulties were posed to absentee balloting by the wide variation in state laws, complex election laws, and different deadline requirements.
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 somewhat effective with the enactment of the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986. The passage of legislation by Congress during wartime years exhibited strong partisan differences, apparently based on views about which political party the law would benefit electorally. The fragmentation of election laws, most particularly the means by which absentee ballots of military personnel and citizens living overseas are handled, continue to disenfranchise voters.
Alvarez, R. Michael, Thad E. Hall, and Brian F. Roberts. 2007. Military Voting and the Law: Procedural and Technical Solutions to the Ballot Transit Problem. Fordham Urban Law Journal. 34, 3: 935-997.
Alvarez, R. Michael, Thad E. Hall, and Betsy Sinclair. 2008. “Whose Absentee Votes Are Counted?” Electoral Studies. 27, 4: 673-683.
American Political Science Association (APSA). 1952. Findings and Recommendations of the Special Committee on Service Voting. American Political Science Review. 46, 2: 512-523.
Anderson, Michael. 2001. In Andrew Edmund Kersten and Kriste Lindenmeyer (eds), Politics and Progress; American Society and the State Since 1865. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Benton, Josiah Henry. 1915. Voting in the Field: A Forgotten Chapter of the Civil War. Boston: Privately printed.
Cain, Bruce E., Karin MacDonald, and Michael H. Murakami. 2008. Administering the Overseas Vote. Public Administration Review. 68, 5: 802-813.
Campbell, Tracy, 2006. Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, An American Political Tradition, 1742-2004. New York: Perseus Books.
Lincoln, Abraham. 1894. The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. John G. Nicola and John Hay, eds. New York: Francis D. S. Tandy, Company.
Mazur, Diane. 2005. “The Bullying of America: A Cautionary Tale About Military Voting and Civil-Military Relations.” 4 Election Law Journal 105.
Rickey, Don. 1999. Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
The Nation. 1866. “Ought Soldiers To Vote?” October 25, 331.
Winther, Oscar Osburn. 1944. “The Soldier Vote in the Election of 1864.” New York History 25 (October).
Zornow, William Frank. 1954. Lincoln and the Party Divided. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Dr. Inbody teaches at Texas State University. He is a retired Navy Captain.