A former Democratic presidential candidate is using her position on the Senate committee responsible for election oversight to press for improvements to absentee voting for U.S. troops.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., ranking member on the Senate Rules Committee, has written the Defense Department's director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program for reassurances that the Pentagon is doing what it can to encourage and support voting among deployed service members and those stationed abroad.
According to the program's 2018 post-election report to Congress, the department sent 655,409 absentee ballots to personnel serving abroad and more than half, or 344,392, were returned, a rate comparable to the overall percentage of Americans who voted in the midterm elections.
But just 26% of the total were from active-duty service members -- a gap, Klobuchar said, that could be related to perceptions by personnel that their votes aren't considered unless an election is close.
The letter comes as concerns have been raised over whether the U.S. Postal Service is equipped to handle an expected avalanche of absentee and mail-in ballots from those who want to vote early and avoid long lines or exposure to COVID-19 on Election Day, Nov. 3.
In July and August, due to changes in operations by the U.S. Postal Service, first-class mail was delayed by at least a day. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy pledged to stop the planned streamlining until after Election Day, but mail continues to arrive slower than it did at the beginning of the year.
This week, voters across the country have received postcards from the Postal Service with recommendations for absentee voting that may be inconsistent with the regulations in their states -- a mailing that may cause confusion among those who have never before voted absentee.
President Donald Trump has claimed that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud and that voter signatures are routinely forged, although his campaign is openly advocating for supporters to vote absentee.
Klobuchar asked Beirne to explain what his office is doing to improve absentee voting among service members and broaden awareness of unit voting assistance officers -- civilian employees or designated service members trained to support personnel in the election process.
"Your 2018 [report] found that many military members were not aware of the important role that VAOs play. It found that of all military members, 44% were aware of VAOs at the unit level, and 43% were aware of Voting Assistance Offices on their installations. However, only 23% of first-time absentee voters were aware of both," she wrote.
This year, the FVAP recommended that military personnel and civilians living overseas request their ballots by Aug. 1. According to the office, voters can use the Federal Post Card Application, or FPCA, to register to vote and request a ballot, available at FVAP.gov.
With less than 50 days left until the election, overseas voters should take action to ensure their vote is counted.
"Using the FPCA ensures that ballots for service members, their families and overseas citizens will be sent out 45 days before the election (Sept. 19), with an option to receive their ballot electronically," Beirne said in a release in June. "This can be particularly helpful this year when mail delays are possible. Using the FPCA also grants voters the ability to use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot as a backup ballot, if needed."
About 46 percent of the 1.3 million active-duty members, or nearly 600,000 personnel, voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to FVAP. About 75%, or nearly 450,000, voted absentee.
Klobuchar has asked for a response by Sept. 29.
"We must take steps now to overcome the challenges that military and overseas citizens face. It is vital that all Americans are able to cast their votes during the pandemic. There are many Americans who are serving our country overseas and they deserve to be heard," Klobuchar wrote.