As part of getting ready for the 2018 election cycle, Escambia County’s Supervisor of Elections recently attended a meeting in San Antonio, Texas on military and overseas voting.
For several years now, David Stafford and Okaloosa County Elections Chief Paul Lux have been involved with the Overseas Voting Initiative, working with the Pentagon and the Council of State Governments.
“Both groups met, and co-chaired the policy group with Secretary of State of the state of Washington Kim Wyman,” said Stafford. “We issued a report, making a series of recommendations to be shared with all of the [members] of the Council of State Governments throughout the country.”
Among the recommendations: a ballot duplication process to cover those that are damaged and/or unreadable; common access to verity digital signatures, and Standardizing data and performance metrics.
“There’s [sic] a lot of things going on in this area,” Stafford said. “Tremendous progress has been made in this area and will continue to be made.”
“Military” and “overseas” voting are covered by the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
“They’re afforded some protections under federal law and then subsequent state laws,” says Stafford. “For instance, [military] ballots get mailed out at the 45-day mark, which is about ten days sooner than ballots for civilian voters.”
And because of NAS Pensacola and Corry Station, there is a large concentration of registered voters locally that fall under that designation. The biggest challenge, says Stafford, is distance – especially if the voter is forward-deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.
That’s where technology comes in.
“We’re allowed to electronically deliver balloting materials, so that’s almost instantaneous now as long as that individual would have access to email or the Internet,” Stafford said. “They still have the necessity to get that back to us, with the exception of a facsimile, which is actually allowed under Florida law.”
Everyone else’s ballot has to be returned in paper form.
During the 2016 election, Escambia County was one of six jurisdictions in the country which took part in a pilot study with the Federal Voting Assistance Program in tracking all overseas ballots.
“[It was] a special delivery of this balloting material, to test this concept, [and] it was successful,” Stafford said. “That’s one of those efforts that we look at to try to do everything we can to aid not only our voters here in Escambia County, but try to share some of the experiences that we have with jurisdictions in other parts of the country.”
The others were Okaloosa County; Orange and San Diego Counties in California, Harris County, Texas (Houston), and Denver, Colorado.
In the 1980s, a group of Florida voters brought suit against the federal government, alleging that military personnel were being disenfranchised because there was not enough time to receive and send back their ballots.
“There was actually a provision that became part of that lawsuit, in the form of a consent decree between the Justice Department and the State of Florida,” said Stafford. “That said overseas voters get an additional ten days for their balloting materials to come back after Election Day, so long as either postmarked or signed on Election Day.”
Bottom line, says Escambia County Elections Supervisor David Stafford, is the goal of improving the voting experience – in effect, bringing a bit of home to those far away.