Absentee Voting for Uniformed Services and Overseas Citizens: Roles and Process, In Brief

September 4, 2020
Absentee Voting for Uniformed Services and Overseas Citizens:
Roles and Process, In Brief

Members of the military, their families, and overseas U.S.
postage-free. Voters may be responsible for covering the
citizens face unique voting challenges. These can include
cost of foreign postage or a commercial carrier, if
delays in receiving or transmitting balloting materials;
uncertainty about voter eligibility; and varying state,

territorial, and local requirements. This CRS In Focus
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) may enforce
provides congressional readers with an overview of the
compliance with UOCAVA through litigation.
federal statute designed to aid these voters, and their typical
 FVAP prescribes the Federal Post Card Application
registration and voting process. It does not contain legal
(FPCA) and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB),
analysis and is not intended to provide guidance to
discussed below.
individual voters.

Overview of the Current Statute
FVAP consults with and educates state, territorial, and
local election officials about their obligations under the
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act
act, and provides information to covered voters.
(UOCAVA; 52 U.S.C. §§20301-20311) is the only federal
statute devoted specifically to voting access for members of
State Responsibilities
the military and other uniformed services, and other
Highlights of current state government UOCAVA
overseas citizens. (Other federal elections and voting
responsibilities include the following. Exemptions can
statutes not covered in this CRS product also could have
apply in specific circumstances.
implications for these voters.) Congress enacted UOCAVA
in 1986 and most recently substantially amended the statute
 States must permit UOCAVA voters to vote and use
in 2009, through provisions in the FY2010 National
absentee registration procedures in federal elections.
Defense Authorization Act (NDAA; P.L. 111-84). The
2009 language (Title V, Subtitle H of the NDAA) was titled
 States must accept and process voter registration and
the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE)
absentee ballot applications, if the voter makes a valid
request at least 30 days before the election.

UOCAVA is designed to make it easier for uniformed
States must transmit absentee ballots to UOCAVA
servicemembers and overseas citizens to register and vote
voters no later than 45 days before a federal election, if
in federal elections, provided that they are otherwise
the voter makes a valid request that is received at least
qualified to do so. Perhaps most notably, UOCAVA
45 days before the election.
requires states and some other jurisdictions (discussed

below) to permit covered voters to register to vote absentee,
States must transmit absentee ballots per state law, if the
and requires the federal government to expedite
voter makes a valid request less than 45 days before a
transmission of completed ballots.
federal election, and, “if practical,” at state discretion,
“in a manner that expedites the transmission.”
Federal Responsibilities
 States must establish procedures for transmitting ballots
Highlights of current federal government UOCAVA
by mail and electronically, and must provide UOCAVA
responsibilities include the following.
voters with an option to designate a preferred

transmission method. States must send blank ballots
A 1988 executive order designates the Secretary of
electronically (or make them available online) at the
Defense to administer UOCAVA. Currently, daily
voter’s request.
responsibility for doing so rests with the Federal Voting
Assistance Program (FVAP) and that office’s Director.
 Because UOCAVA voters may print election materials
FVAP administers military and civilian aspects of the
themselves, states may not reject otherwise validly
completed Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots solely

because they do not comport with a state’s requirements
UOCAVA requires the FVAP Director to coordinate
for envelopes, paper weight, or notarization.
with the U.S. Postal Service to develop procedures to
“expedite” delivery of delivery of completed ballots in
Voters the Statute Covers
time for those ballots to be counted, provided that they
UOCAVA covers two groups of citizens: one that is
are received for transmission at least seven days before
primarily members of the military and the other that is
the election. Referencing postal law (39 U.S.C. §3406),
primarily private citizens. The statute classifies these as (1)
UOCAVA requires balloting materials to be transmitted

Absentee Voting for Uniformed Services and Overseas Citizens: Roles and Process, In Brief
absent uniformed services voters and certain dependents;
varies depending on a voter’s individual circumstances.
and (2) overseas voters. In both cases, UOCAVA covers
Often, it is the permanent U.S. address at which the voter is
only certain voters who are away from their voting
eligible to vote, or the last U.S. location in which the person
residence (discussed below) on Election Day because of
lived (was “domiciled”) and was eligible to vote before
their active-duty status, or, for overseas citizens, outside the
moving to the current duty station or moving abroad.
United States.
Importantly, casting a ballot in state or local elections can
have tax and other legal residency implications that are
Absent uniformed services voters are primarily active-duty
beyond the scope of this CRS product, but that may be
military members who are away from their voting
relevant for individual voters.
residence, even if they are stationed inside the United
States. These include members of the U.S. Air Force,
How UOCAVA Voters Register and Vote
Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. (UOCAVA
Like traditional absentee voting, UOCAVA voting typicaly
predates establishment of the U.S. Space Force. The new
involves three major steps: (1) registering to vote; (2)
branch is housed within the Department of the Air Force.)
requesting an absentee ballot; and (3) returning an absentee
Several states have chosen to extend UOCAVA protections
ballot. Because individual processes vary by state, election
to their National Guard members who are on active-duty
jurisdictions typically conduct specific outreach to
status under state orders.
UOCAVA voters. FVAP, military services, and U.S.
embassies and consulates also conduct educational and
 The absent uniformed services voter definition also
outreach campaigns for UOCAVA voters. In addition,
includes members of the merchant marine and
UOCAVA requires FVAP to establish an online database of
commissioned officers of the U.S. Public Health Service
state-specific information for registering to vote and
and of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
requesting an absentee ballot (see https://www.fvap.gov/).
Administration (NOAA). UOCAVA applies to these
voters who are absent from their voting residence
The Federal Post Card Application
because of their service.
UOCAVA prescribes the Federal Post Card Application

(FPCA) for covered-voter registration, updating voter
UOCAVA also covers uniformed services spouses or
contact information, and requesting an absentee ballot in a
dependents who also are absent from their normal
single step. FVAP administers producing the FPCA and
voting residence because of the uniformed
makes copies available in print and online.
servicemember’s service.
The Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot
Overseas voters who are not covered by the uniformed
Normally, UOCAVA voters receive and return the same
services voter definition, but who are covered by
absentee ballot as other voters in the jurisdiction. A
UOCAVA, include those Americans who reside abroad but
UOCAVA voter registered in St. Louis County, Missouri,
who remain eligible to vote in their U.S. voting residence
for example, typically would receive and vote a St. Louis
(e.g., federal employees stationed in foreign countries,
County ballot, complete with federal, state, and local races,
students studying abroad, U.S. citizens who live abroad,
ballot initiatives, etc. In addition, UOCAVA specifies a
Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) as an emergency
“back-up” for federal contests. Voters may use the FWAB
Jurisdictions the Statute Covers
if their state ballot does not arrive in time to cast a vote, or
The UOCAVA state definition includes the 50 states, the
if the completed ballot is not received at the election
District of Columbia, and the territories of American
jurisdiction. UOCAVA generally requires (unless states
Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
receive approval for their own absentee ballots) that states
The statute does not cover the Commonwealth of the
accept the FWAB for elections for federal office.
Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). (There were no federal
elections in the territory when Congress enacted
Returning the Bal ot
Voters generally may return completed absentee ballots or
UOCAVA Voting Process
FWABs by mail, commercial carrier (e.g., FedEx or UPS),
or fax. Depending on a voter’s location, mail transmission
Per the U.S. Constitution and federal law, and federalism
can involve handling by the U.S. Postal Service, the
principles, states have the initial and principal responsibility
Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA), or a foreign postal
for administering federal elections. UOCAVA requires
service. Some states permit UOCAVA voters to return
those jurisdictions to provide the protections noted herein to
scanned ballots by email or online portal. Fax and online
covered voters. It does not otherwise change the way in
transmission typically requires the voter to sign a waiver
which states, territories, and localities administer elections.
acknowledging that traditional ballot secrecy cannot
Election jurisdictions remain responsible for
necessarily be maintained. Completed UOCAVA ballots
communicating with voters; establishing registration and
must be transmitted expeditiously, postage-free, if using
voter eligibility requirements (consistent with relevant
U.S. mail.
federal law, such as the Voting Rights Act); and counting
R. Sam Garrett, Specialist in American National
Where UOCAVA Voters Register and Vote
The location in which the voter registers and casts a ballot
generally is called the “voting residence.” This location

Absentee Voting for Uniformed Services and Overseas Citizens: Roles and Process, In Brief

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