Samuel F. Wright

Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
Director, Service Members Law Center
(800) 809-9448, ext. 730
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Law Review 1154


Progress in Virginia on Military Voting

By Captain Samuel F. Wright, JAGC, USN (Ret.)

7.0—Military Voting Rights

Congratulations to Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and to Donald Palmer[1], Governor McDonnell’s appointee as Secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections (VSBOE).  All of Virginia’s counties and independent cities that are conducting primaries on August 23[2] got the absentee ballots mailed at least 45 days before that date.

Virginia is one of five states (along with Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Jersey) that conduct the important state elections in November of odd-numbered years.  Virginia’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General were elected for four-year terms in 2009, so those offices are not on the ballot again until 2013.  This year, Virginians will elect 40 Senators (for four-year terms) and 100 Delegates (for two-year terms), as well as many local officials.  The general election will be held on November 8, 2011.

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), there are 35,785 Virginians serving on active duty in our armed forces, and the vast majority of them are serving outside the Commonwealth of Virginia.  (Most of the military personnel serving within Virginia are not Virginians.)  Virginians on active duty pay Virginia state income tax, through withholding from their military salaries, regardless of where the service of our country has taken them.  They deserve to participate in the election of those who lead our federal, state, and local governments. 

Despite enormous improvements in communications technology, absentee voting is still being conducted essentially as it was conducted during World War II, by shipping pieces of paper across oceans and continents by “snail mail.”  As you can imagine, there are three time-consuming steps in absentee voting.  First, the absentee ballot request must travel from the voter to the local election official (LEO) back home.  Second, the unmarked ballot must travel from the LEO to the voter.  Finally, the marked ballot must travel from the voter to the election official.  Each of these steps can take weeks if snail mail must be used, but only seconds if secure electronic means were authorized.

As amended by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) in 2009, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires LEOs to mail out absentee ballots at least 45 days before Election Day, so that military personnel will have time to receive their ballots, mark them, and return them on time to be counted, no matter where the service of our country has taken them.  UOCAVA does not apply to Virginia’s 2011 primary and general election, because there are no federal offices on the ballot, but by state law Virginia seeks to enfranchise military personnel. 

The VSBOE also recently adopted regulations providing for secure electronic transmission of the absentee ballot request, from the voter to the LEO, and the unmarked ballot, from the LEO to the voter, but not of the marked ballot. Virginia is going out of its way to facilitate military absentee voting, and for that we are grateful.  I hope that Virginians in the military will take advantage of the opportunity to vote this year for state legislators and local officials.

[1] Donald Palmer is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps and a member of ROA.

[2] Some counties and independent cities are not conducting a primary because the incumbent State Senators and State Delegates have no opposition within their own parties.  In some other districts, the nomination is being conducted by a convention or caucus, instead of a primary.  I believe that all nominations should be conducted by means of a primary, with absentee voting, so that military personnel will have the opportunity to participate.  Please see my Law Review 1105.