Voting Abroad: FVAP’s report on the 2016 election

By Amy Cohen

After every federal election, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) conducts the Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) on how the election was administered and issues a report; I wrote about much of the report when the 2016 survey results were released earlier this summer. In addition to questions about voting and registration for the population at large, the survey also asks questions about military and overseas voting and registration, because this is an important population that is difficult to serve. The section of the survey on this population is now conducted in conjunction with the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), a division of the Department of Defense that is dedicated to helping state and local election officials communicate effectively with military and overseas voters, and helping those voters register to vote and vote successfully. In addition, FVAP conducts a separate survey of active duty military (ADM) voters to understand their experience with voting and elections. FVAP released their report on the 2016 election that discusses both the EAVS data and the survey of ADM on August 8. Data on overseas citizens is expected to be published later this year.

Some highlights from the 2016 report include:

  • The states reported approximately 137,793 Federal Postcard Applications (FPCAs) were sent by military voters, and an additional approximately 238,488 FPCAs from overseas voters. An FPCA is a form that allows military and overseas voters to simultaneously register to vote and/or request an absentee ballot. 39 percent of ADM used the FPCA to request an absentee ballot, down from 47 percent in 2012. In many states, the FPCA is the only way to ensure federal legal protections for military and overseas voters.
  • Approximately 950,836 absentee ballots were sent to military and overseas voters. If a military or overseas voter does not receive a ballot they requested, or they are worried that it will not arrive in time, they can download and complete a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB), which is a backup ballot. If a voter submits a FWAB and returns their absentee ballot, only the absentee ballot is counted. States reported receiving approximately 24,313 FWABs in 2016.
  • The Military Postal Service Agency returned more than 51,700 voted ballots from military members to election offices (ballots are identifiable because of the kind of postage). The average military ballot return time was 5.1 days.
  • Among the general population, voter registration increased and turnout remained relatively constant from 2012 to 2016, however registration and turnout among ADM decreased. In 2016, 68 percent of ADM were registered to vote, and 46 percent of all ADM cast a ballot; in 2012, 81 percent were registered to vote and 59 percent of all ADM cast a ballot. Some of these decreases are likely related to demographic changes in the ADM population, which has become slightly less white and less married, as well as somewhat less likely to have a college degree. All three of these demographic characteristics have been linked to higher rates of voter participation.
  • 61 percent of ADM who did not cast a ballot in 2016 said that they did not want to vote, up from 47 percent in 2012.
  • Importantly, 2016 saw a significant increase in the percentage of ADM who received the absentee ballot that they requested. In 2016, 33 percent requested an absentee ballot, and 84 percent received it; in 2012, 41 percent requested an absentee ballot and only 75 percent received it. Those nine percentage points represent several years of concerted effort by FVAP and election officials to make sure that more of the ballots requested by military members are actually received, such as work with the Military Postal Service Agency and the U.S. Postal Service to better track and manage military address changes, which can be frequent.
  • 87 percent of ADM in the Coast Guard who requested an absentee ballot returned it, as did 82 percent in the Navy, 80 percent in the Air Force, 79 percent in the Marine Corps, and 76 percent in the Army.
  • 19 percent of ADM in 2016 were first-time voters.

FVAP is a critical resource for helping state and local election officials mitigate the challenges of communicating with voters overseas, and provides important resources for military and overseas voters who need assistance. Issues these voters experience range from problems with the U.S. Postal Service or Military Postal Service in their country of residence to confusion about voting eligibility for children or grandchildren of Americans overseas who are citizens but have never resided in the United States. Data such as those above, and those included in the FVAP report, are important to understanding and improving how our democracy functions for those citizens who are overseas.