A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate would create an end-to-end electronic voting system to make it easier for service members to vote when deployed to areas with limited postal service.
If it becomes law, the proposal would require defense officials to develop a plan for providing electronic voting services — to include registering to vote, requesting an electronic ballot, and completing and returning the ballot — to service members who vote in states that choose to participate in the electronic system.
It won’t happen overnight. If it becomes law, it would require DoD to submit its plan to the House and Senate Armed Services committees within a year. A test would be conducted with a subgroup of eligible voters in participating states in the 2024 federal elections and, if all goes well, it would be expanded to all eligible military voters from the participating states in the 2026 federal elections.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would establish a secure electronic voting system designed to make it easier for active-duty members to vote when stationed in hazardous duty zones or on rotational deployments, according to a news release. A companion bill was introduced earlier this year in the House by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
“Service members face numerous barriers to voting that makes it more difficult for them to more fully participate in our democracy by exercising their right to vote,” Duckworth, a combat veteran, said in the release.
“It’s a sad fact that service members in faraway or isolated posts sometimes can’t participate in the very same democratic system they are fighting for,” Cornyn said. “This legislation will allow active-duty troops deployed to some of our most difficult assignments to safely and securely cast their ballots.”
The proposed system would be a departure from the long tradition of defense officials being completely detached from the actual absentee ballot voting process for military and overseas voters, which is conducted between state and local election officials and the voter. Defense officials would develop a plan for the electronic voting; whereas DoD’s current role is to provide information, resources and connections to state and local election officials to help military and overseas voters successfully cast absentee ballots.
DoD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program office has extensive resources online, continually conducts outreach to voters, and provides training to installation and unit voting assistance officers to help absentee voters.
Lawmakers are hoping to increase the participation of military voters and their ability to vote successfully. “Despite exemplary outreach efforts by [FVAP], voting rules for active-duty service members depend on individual state policies,” the senators stated in the release. For a lot of military and overseas voters, that means even if they can get ballots electronically, they may have to print out ballots, fill them in and mail them back. “Given the frequency of operational deployments and inconsistent mail service to remote outposts, state-by-state changes to election laws create obstacles that disproportionately impact military turnout,” the senators stated in their press release.
The bill calls for DoD’s FVAP office to work with DoD’s chief information officer to develop the electronic voting plan.
The plan must include methods for voters to verify that their ballots are received by state and local election officials and tabulated correctly; methods to create a verifiable and auditable vote trail (paper or electronic) for the purposes of any election recount or audit; and an assessment of whether commercially available technology can be used to carry out any part of the plan.
The electronic voting system would apply to service members who are deployed or mobilized to locations “with limited or immature postal service” — as determined by DoD.
Advocates say a key element of the proposed legislation is that it specifies that states have a choice in whether to participate, which doesn’t impose a federal requirement. DoD would also be required to consult with state and local election officials in the development process, according to the proposal, “to ensure that the plan may be implemented successfully in any state which agrees to participate in the plan.”
But a key question is whether states will choose to participate in this electronic voting system.
“I’m hopeful states will be willing. If this bill leads to the adoption of a system that is trustworthy and costs states little, if anything, then I would hope states would want to offer this to their military voters,” said Sarah Streyder, executive director of Secure Families Initiative. Nearly 30 states have extended some options for at least partial electronic voting for absentee military voters, “which tells me states have a desire to make voting easy and accessible for military voters when they can.
“My hope is that if this bill becomes law and DoD can demonstrate due diligence in whatever process they take up, then groups like ours and other military family stakeholder groups can help encourage and educate states on why this is valuable to them.”
While this is a paradigm shift for the department in terms of participating in the creation of a secure electronic option, Streyder said, “we see DoD as being well-poised to explore this option,” with the involvement of the chief information officer. “One possible option would be building off secure systems that DoD already has. That seems to be a solution that makes a lot of sense,” she said, adding that DoD would also have other tools and options to explore.
Electronic voting has long been under discussion for absentee military voters. More than a decade ago, the FVAP office established the Electronic Absentee System for Elections research grant program to test the feasibility of new election technology for the benefit of military and overseas voters. The grant program allows the office to test a wide range of election technologies through research grants provided to states and localities.
The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness at one time had responsibility for establishing a demonstration project to allow military voters to vote absentee for federal offices through an electronic voting system, but that responsibility was removed from the Code of Federal Regulations in November 2019.
This story has been edited to reflect the correct author of the House bill.
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.