Improving Forms for Military and Overseas Voters

March 11, 2015

This post is co-authored by Stacey Van Zuiden and Adam Ambrogi.

For the thousands of American voters who live abroad or who are in the military stationed away from their homes, the process of casting a ballot can be full of challenges. For those without regular Internet or in a region without routine postal service, where do you tell your U.S.-based Election Official to send the ballot? And can you receive it in time to vote? Do you need a witness to sign your form? Or will your signature be enough?

These challenges, plus many more, contributed to approximately 21,000 rejected absentee ballot requests made using the standard federal form in 2012, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), which is the Department of Defense program charged with assisting military and overseas voters. It is unclear exactly why these rejections happen, and FVAP is doing additional research, but if the design of the federal form is a factor, there’s something we can do.

With the goal of helping to alleviate confusion or problems for voters, the Democracy Fund recently submitted comments in response to FVAP’s open comment period on the two federal forms used by this community, the FPCA and FWAB.

The Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) is used to both register to vote and request an absentee ballot, and the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) is essentially a back-up ballot most often used when a voter did not receive an official ballot in time to return it. The variance in election rules across 55 states and territories means that FVAP has the ongoing challenge of making the forms straight-forward and user-friendly, but specific enough to accommodate state law. FVAP has made major advancements to help voters use the forms by creating highly successful online tools, but the fact remains that not all voters will have access to the Internet, so the paper forms should be as useful as possible.

We believe that our recommendations could have lasting and long-term benefits for all overseas voters. The following are some of the areas of high priority. (Read our full comments here and here.)

  • First, clarify that military and overseas voters who request a ballot by email or fax must still provide a current absentee address.

In 2009, Congress enacted the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) requiring these voters have the option to receive their blank ballots electronically, potentially cutting ballot transit time in half. On both FVAP forms there are fields labeled: “Where to send my ballot”/“Where to send my election materials.” Voters could easily assume that an email address or fax number is sufficient for this box. However, most election officials require a foreign or absentee address so they can confirm a voter is away from their home jurisdiction, even if the voter is requesting to receive their ballot electronically. Instead, we recommend this box be labeled: “Absentee address/ Where you reside now.”

  • Second, keep the affirmation tailored to the voter and don’t make voters “swear” to more than they have to.

Each form also has an affirmation section where the voter must attest to meeting certain eligibility requirements. The affirmations are written broadly to cover variations in election laws across the states. However, as the terms try to cast a broad net, the affirmation length grows and may require a voter to swear to a requirement not applicable in their state on penalty of perjury. And the longer the affirmation paragraph becomes, the less likely voters are to read it. We believe there are three key things a voter should need to affirm: 1) the information is true and accurate to the applicant’s knowledge, 2) they are a U.S. citizen and they meet other state eligibility requirements, and 3) they are not registering to vote or voting in any other U.S. jurisdiction. We can solve the qualifications question by “incorporating by reference” the state-specific requirements.

  • Third, FVAP and states should do more to reduce unnecessary hurdles for these voters by eliminating witness requirements.

There is an area on the forms for a witness to sign underneath the voter’s signature, but there are only a handful of states that require witness signatures. Unbelievably, in Alabama, absentee voters are required to have two witnesses sign the form. In 2012, less than half of the military and overseas ballots submitted by voters from Alabama were counted in the November General Election.

The MOVE Act banned notary requirements, but witness requirements are an archaic holdover from a time when there were less sophisticated ways to validate a voter’s signature. Today, election officials can more easily compare signatures from DMV files. The Democracy Fund recognizes that the witness lines must stay for now because of these remaining state-based requirements, and we challenge FVAP to talk to these states and the public about the burden this places on voters who are often working with early deadlines to send their forms home.

  • Fourth, simplify the ballot portion of the FWAB. Voting shouldn’t be overly complicated—the cleaner the design, the better the experience.

We believe there are significant design flaws with the ballot portion of the FWAB. The area where a voter writes the office or issue on which they are voting does not clearly correspond to where the voter writes the name of their preferred candidate or ballot choice. While not quite as bad as Florida’s famous “butterfly ballot,” this format has the potential to produce confusion.

It is worth noting that FWABs are more likely to be rejected than regular state absentee ballots, making up 33.1% of rejected military and overseas ballots even though they are only 7.4% of the total ballots submitted. And while there could be a number of reasons for this, such as whether a voter’s state ballot is returned in time, we believe the design of the FWAB could be adding to the total number of rejections. Because this is a basic usability issue, we recommend FVAP consider incorporating arrows or another design element that makes the form clearer. There are ballot design resources available with guidance on how to make election forms much easier to use.

These are four primary recommendations DF made to FVAP as part of the official comment process. We commend FVAP for both running a meaningful open comment period — where actual engagement was requested. They are required to update the form from time to time — we believe they have a real opportunity here to take several clear steps forward. For some, these changes may seem small, and perhaps inconsequential, but if one imagines the improvement overall for tens of thousands of individuals using these materials to register and request an absentee ballot—every way the forms are improved increases the likelihood that they will have their vote count.

When considering the testimony for the MOVE Act, the Senate heard from Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph DeCaro (in his own capacity). He reflected that service members wanted to vote. The challenge, he indicated, was navigating the complexities of the rules and requirements to receive a ballot. It is with that spirit that we continue to support FVAP’s effort to make voting a little bit easier for Mr. DeCaro and others like him.