A new non-partisan coalition of 15 organizations representing thousands of military members and their family members has sent letters to all state election officials urging them to send absentee ballots to uniformed and overseas voters by Sept. 19 — as required by law.

“Our coalition plans to closely monitor this process. You can expect to hear from us if any of our voters face trouble,” stated the Sept. 1 letter from the Military Vote Coalition, signed by the 15 member organizations.

It’s the law. Under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), states must send absentee ballots at least 45 days before a federal election to these voters who have requested the ballots, in order to give voters enough time to return their ballots. Those covered by the law include military members and their family members who are away from their polling place in their state of residence, whether in the U.S. or overseas. It also covers overseas U.S. citizens.

Though the absentee ballot process has been around for decades, things have changed drastically, said Sarah Streyder, an Air Force spouse who is founder of the coalition and director of the Secure Families Initiative, during an event Sept. 1 launching the coalition.

“In two months, our country will have a national election under unprecedented pandemic conditions, and no voter will be voting in exactly the same way as usual,” said Streyder.

The coalition also sent a separate letter to state election officials in five states with high concentrations of military families to make an exception to change their laws and regulations that prevent service members and military families from serving as poll workers if they are not registered to vote in that state. But only 10 of the coalition organizations signed on to that letter, sent to officials in California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

The letter cited the shortage of poll workers this year due largely to the impact of COVID-19, and noted the military community could be a source to help mitigate the problem, with the high rate of volunteerism in the military community. “Military families intimately understand the cost of our democracy, having watched, waited, and worried as their service members deploy to all corners of the globe.

“These families, already willing to sacrifice everything, should not be denied the opportunity to further serve our democracy as poll workers.”

Not every coalition member organization agreed with the idea, however.

“I worry having military personnel, even if on leave, serving as election judges and poll workers because of their military status could unnecessarily interject the military into what is ultimately a partisan political operation,” said Carey, a retired Navy captain who is chair of the National Defense Committee. Carey was director of DoD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program from 2009 to 2012.

But protecting and strengthening in-person voting is key for protecting the military and military family vote, he said. “We salute the coalition for raising this crucial issue. We look forward to working with the other members of the coalition on how to do that.”

About one-third of service members who voted in 2018 did so in person, according to a report from the Federal Voting Assistance Program. But overall, just 26 percent of military members voted in 2018, compared to 52 percent of those in the civilian population with similar demographics.

Nearly one-third of non-voters in the military wanted to vote or tried to vote in 2018, but were unable to do so. There were various reasons, according to FVAP, such as lack of information to complete the absentee voting process, or challenges with the process. Those challenges included not receiving a ballot, or receiving it too late, according to FVAP.

Among the improvements needed are more accountability for state election officials to get those absentee ballots out 45 days in advance, said Candace Wheeler, senior adviser for policy and legislation for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, one of the coalition partners. “That’s not always happening.”

The law needs to be changed to allow individuals to file suit against election officials when they believe their voting rights have been violated, said Carey, of the National Defense Committee, an organization that focuses on military civil rights. Currently only the Justice Department is allowed to bring legal action for these alleged violations.

Service members and family members also want to know their ballot has been received and put into the system, Wheeler said, noting that some states have set up websites that allow voters to check.

The coalition’s primary missions are advocacy and educational outreach, Streyder said. “We need to make sure that policies that govern military voting make the ballot box as accessible to the community as possible, and hold the line on progress that’s already been made,” she said. Changes to the law have made improvements in the absentee ballot process for voters.

The educational outreach will take advantage of the connections of each of the coalition partners to get the information out about what military voters need to make sure their ballots count.

The FVAP, for example, has a website with information walking UOCAVA voters through what they need to do to register to vote and request absentee ballots. Military units have voting assistance officers, and installations have voting assistance offices.

There is still time to register to vote; and the FVAP has information on what service members and family members can do if they don’t get their absentee ballot from their local election official in time—sending in a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot.

Whitney Armstrong, vice president of development for the Military Spouse Advocacy Network, said this coalition’s initiative is important for the population they serve, primarily spouses ages 18 to 24. The organization provides peer support to help mentor and guide young spouses to the resources and opportunities they need to understand and navigate the military life.

The demands on young spouses, especially as they move to a new duty station, are many, such as finding housing, registering children for school and connecting with new services in their community, she said. As part of the coalition, she said, the Military Spouse Advocacy Network can help raise awareness that registering to vote, requesting an absentee ballot, finding a local polling location should be high on the list of things to do when moving to a new duty station.

Members of the coalition are:

• Blue Star Families

• Code of Support Foundation

• Homefront Rising

• Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

• Military Family Advisory Network

• Military Officers Association of America

• Military Spouse Advocacy Network

• Military Spouse J.D. Network

• Modern Military Association of America

• National Defense Committee

• National Military Family Association

• National Military Spouse Network

• Partners in Promise

• Secure Families Initiative

• Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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