Voting for Military Service Members and Their Families

 (U.S. Air Force/Justin Connaher)
(U.S. Air Force/Justin Connaher)

Are you ready to vote in the upcoming election? Whether you have recently moved or you are deployed overseas, when it's Election Day, you want your vote and your family's votes to be counted.

Using an absentee ballot to vote is relatively easy once you know the rules of your state. Here are some suggestions on how, where, and when to get the information you need.

The state where you reside

Because voting for candidates for state and federal office is managed by each state, you have to "establish residency" in one state in order to vote. But if your clothes are in a duffle bag, you've applied for housing at a new installation, and your spouse and kids are living with your parents while you are deployed, it might be hard to know just where you reside.

To "establish residency" means that you take steps that indicate your intent to live in the state. If you've paid local taxes, registered a car, received a driver's license, or voted in a state, you've probably proved that you've been physically present in that state and that you intend to return.

Each state has different requirements for establishing residency. Thirty days is the maximum length of time that a state can require you to live there before you can register to vote in that state. Some states have no time requirement.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP)

The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) was established to try to make the voting process as easy as possible for service members. The program's Web site, , explains residency requirements, voting instructions, and deadlines for each state, whether you are voting within the U.S. or from another country.

Absentee voting: deadlines are the key

Votes from service members who are away from their home state or overseas form a critical piece of an election. To help these voters, every installation or unit is required to appoint a voting assistance officer (VAO). This person is responsible for providing information and for helping service members and their families get any materials they need in order to file an absentee ballot in state and federal elections. You may have learned the name of your VAO in a voter-awareness class or from posters urging you to vote. If not, you can find out the name from the personnel administration office.

Although a few states may allow you to fax your ballot, most states will accept ballots by mail only. For overseas voters, this may mean putting the ballot in the mail weeks before an election. This requires taking all the necessary steps to make sure you have a ballot in your hand in time to make that deadline.

Here are the steps to take:

  • Find out the election date. From your VAO or from the FVAP Web site, you can learn the dates of your state's primaries. The federal election is always held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. For example, the election in 2004 takes place on November 2.
  • Apply for an absentee ballot. In most states, one application serves to register you to vote as well as to apply to receive a ballot. Fill in the SF 76 Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) that you receive from your VAO, or the online version (OFPCA) that you download from the FVAP Web site. Send the FPCA (postage paid) or the OFPCA (you must print out the form and mail it with proper postage) to the official in charge of elections in the county where you have established residency. The address in your state to which you will mail the application is listed in the Voting Assistance Guide (VAG). Your VAO should have a copy of the VAG, or you can find it online at the FVAP Web site ( ). The guide will also tell you whether or not your state allows voting by fax. Some states allow you to submit your FPCA by fax, and then to follow up with a hard copy by mail.

Some states require a separate FPCA for primaries and the general election; in most states, one FPCA is valid for one year. The military advises members and their families to send a new FPCA every January, and whenever you've changed your address, so that you are registered to vote in any elections that take place during that year.

  • A family member may be able to send you an absentee ballot. Some states allow a family member to register a service member to vote, and to request an absentee ballot to mail to the service member. The ballot, though, must go directly from the service member to the local election official.
  • States send out the absentee ballot when it's available. However, there are sometimes delays -- for example, when there is a dispute about whether a candidate will be on the ballot. Most states begin mailing out their absentee ballots by mid-August.
  • Expect the ballot to be mailed from the election office at least 30 days before the election. If you do not receive your ballot, and you are in danger of missing the absentee voting deadline, your VAO can provide you with an alternate form, called an SF 186 Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB). Most states accept this ballot. Mail your ballot as early as possible to allow for mail delays.
  • Find out the deadline by which your state must receive all absentee ballots. Most states have one deadline by which your vote must arrive. Some states have two deadlines, depending on whether or not you had previously registered to vote. Your state's deadline may be two weeks or more before Election Day, by the closing of the polls on Election Day, or even after the election as long as the ballot is clearly postmarked on Election Day or earlier.

Learning more about absentee voting

For more information, try checking with the following resources:

The Federal Voting Assistance Program


(For information about candidates, FVAP also sponsors a Voting Information Center at 800-438-VOTE (8683); DSN (for military only) 425-1343.)

Democrats Abroad

Republicans Abroad

This article was written with the help of voting action officers Lieutenant Commander Mark A. Lofton, Navy; and Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth B. Warford, Marine Corps.

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