It was just a few short days before Halloween in 2012. Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Bourque was stationed in Japan and had just received his mail-in absentee ballot for the presidential election. He knew it would be nearly impossible to fill it out and mail it back in time to be counted by Arizona election officials on Nov. 6.
“I think it was kind of disheartening to get it late,” Bourque said. “It just felt like the state didn’t care about us … they didn’t want us to vote, not that they were trying to suppress us, just that we were an afterthought.”
Today, Bourque could have voted on time with Arizona’s electronic ballot mailing system.
Beginning in 2004, Arizona voters abroad could ask that ballots be sent to them electronically, but they still had to return ballots by mail or fax. That changed in 2014, when the state allowed military and overseas voters to return ballot via the internet or by fax up to 7 p.m. on Election Day.
The voter’s county notifies the military or overseas voter by email that his or her ballot is ready. The voter signs into the secure system, fills out the ballot, and scans it back into the system to be returned electronically to county election officials. The county recorder in the voter’s county then receives and processes the ballot.
Maricopa and Pima counties have the most military and other Arizona citizens living abroad, including about 10,400 registered voters in 2012, according to the Election Assistance Commission. Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said helping to advance technology for military voters and overseas citizens was personal for her because her service member son had been unable to return his ballot in time by mail.
“My son was stationed in Iraq in Desert Storm,” Purcell said. “I could get a ballot to him. I couldn’t get it back in time to count it. I didn’t want that to ever happen again, to anybody. Because it seems to me that those people should be more the ones allowed to vote than anybody else.”
Purcell – a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Technical Guidelines Development Committee, which works to improve and modernize voting trends for the future – said the state’s system even allows military voters to register electronically on Election Day. The service member must complete all of the forms online that day and fill out the ballot by 7 p.m. when the polls close.
“We have, I think, set up a connection with the military that most of them understand the system we have now,” Purcell said. “They have been dealing with it for several elections now. So, I think that has become much easier.”
Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said her county has a special digital program in place to assist overseas voters.
“We get a form in … and even those that mark the ballot for mail, we email them and ask them if they want us to send out their ballots electronically,” Rodriguez said. For voters registering for the first time, Rodriguez and her staff converse with the overseas voter several times through email. Then they send both the voter registration material and ballot to the voter simultaneously.
Arizona is home to several military bases, where U.S. military voting assistance officers help service members ensure they receive a ballot if they move or deploy. Paperwork for the voting process needs to be completed and updated frequently as service members passing through the bases for training may make more than one move during a short time period and may not have a future address in place.
“Usually there is a lot we can do even if they have missed the deadline. There are processes in place that we can do a (federal) write-in absentee ballot and help them at least have another shot at getting their vote counted,” said Capt. Kate Murphy, installation voting officer and pharmacist at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
Murphy said the bases work with the Federal Voting Assistance Program to set up two annual events to help educate voters. The first event, in late June and early July, is Armed Forces Voter Week, geared to remind military voters and their families about registration and upcoming elections. The second is Absentee Voters Week in September, aimed at reminding service members to vote if they have received their ballots or to fill out a federal write-in absentee ballot if the ballot they sent for hasn’t arrived.
“People just feel like their vote just isn’t going to count. People feel like they are kind of disillusioned in the entire system and so they just don’t want to vote,” Murphy said. “Which kind of puts them in that Catch-22. Well you know, if you don’t vote, definitely your voice isn’t going to be heard. But they feel like even if they do vote, their voice doesn’t matter.”
First Lt. Matt Warner of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence at Fort Huachuca near Sierra Vista, said that “during our voting kickoff week here at Fort Huachuca, I had the opportunity to set up a booth at one of the dining facilities for our soldiers here. We set up posters, billboards. We try to tell them that their vote is going to count. The process isn’t too burdensome. Their vote will count, their voice matters.”
Wes Copper, civilian and installation voting assistance officer for Fort Huachuca, said the Army now requires soldiers to speak to a voting assistance officer when they arrive at every new base.
“When they come in, they are in-processing and it is mandated that we discuss voting,” Copper said, “we will ask them if they are registered to vote. We’ll ask them about absentee and if they’re not registered, we’ll register them if they want to.”
Editor’s note: This story was produced for Cronkite News by the Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Voting Wars” national reporting project. It was written using documents from the Department of Justice, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, county recorders’ offices in Arizona, interviews and datasets from the Election Assistance Commission.