The Problem: The overseas voting process can be administratively burdensome
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) guarantees the right of military and overseas citizens to register and vote by absentee ballot in federal elections. In 2016, over 8,600 UOCAVA voters in South Carolina requested absentee ballots, including roughly 4,600 military voters and 4,000 overseas citizens. Nearly 30 percent of those voters came from Charleston County. “We have the most military voters in the state, and the majority of them request absentee ballots. The UOCAVA process is critical in protecting their right to vote” says Isaac Cramer from the Charleston County Board of Elections.
However, the UOCAVA process can be administratively difficult for election officials. Voters who qualify for absentee ballots under UOCAVA must be given the option to receive their ballot electronically under federal law. In South Carolina, this has been handled by sending individual emails to voters who request ballots electronically. In a recent Charleston County election, officials sent over 2,000 individualized emails to UOCAVA voters, each with a unique ballot attachment. Voters also return their completed ballots as an email attachment, which officials then print and manually duplicate onto paper ballots. To minimize the chance for errors, two people review each duplicated ballot before it is counted. The process is time consuming, labor intensive, and offers many opportunities for error.
We have the most military voters in the state, and the majority of them request absentee ballots. The UOCAVA process is critical in protecting their right to vote”
Isaac Cramer - Executive Director of the Charleston County, SC Board of Elections
The Solution: A streamlined online voting process
In 2020, Charleston County worked with digital voting vendor Democracy Live to pilot a mobile voting option for their UOCAVA voters. Cramer recognized mobile voting as an opportunity to improve the voter experience and streamline administrative processes. During the August 2020 special election, UOCAVA voters were given the option to vote on their mobile devices using the new platform. Of the 89 requested ballots, 49 (55%) were returned. This was a marked increase in participation relative to the June 2020 primary, where UOCAVA voters used PDF and email to vote. In June, only 4 of the 41 requested ballots (9.8%) were returned. “We got feedback from voters that they wanted a mobile voting option for all elections. They felt it was easier than email and much more secure” says Cramer.
The new digital voting platform also proved much easier for election officials. Instead of manually sending individualized emails to voters, the new system allows elections staff to send one email to all voters containing the secure mobile voting link. When the ballot was returned, a two-member team of elections staff previously had to print individual ballots and hand-duplicate them for tabulation. In the new system, staff are able to print ballots for tabulation directly from the digital ballot box when the ballot is returned. This streamlined process saved about 17 hours of manual work in the November 2020 election and provided voters greater assurance that none of their votes could be altered. The digital ballot box also protects the anonymity of the voter’s ballot, unlike email or other traditional return methods. For Cramer, the change was dramatic. “Digital voting significantly lowers the administrative burden and the opportunity for error, it improves security, and it gives voters a better experience. I would use it for all of our elections if I could.”
What’s Next: Testing mobile voting for UOCAVA voters across the state
A 2018 report on UOCAVA voters by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) supports the Charleston County experience, finding higher turnout for electronic ballots. The report found that voters who received electronic ballots were more likely to vote than those who received mail ballots. The study confirmed that mobile voting makes it easier to return a ballot, especially closer to an election as it does not require extra equipment and can be done quickly. According to the study, UOCAVA voters who returned their ballot by mail were 900 times more likely to have their ballot rejected for arriving too late than voters who returned their ballot electronically. FVAP also found that nearly half of military voters would prefer to vote using an online system in the future, and that nearly 60 percent view online voting as secure compared to 49 percent who think mail-in voting is secure. One-third of military voters attempted to vote in 2018 but couldn’t due to obstacles requesting, receiving and returning a ballot, which helps account for the lower confidence in mail-in voting.
- 33 %
- 900 x
The Charleston pilot was just a first step in exploring how mobile voting can address hurdles for UOCAVA voters. In September 2020, South Carolina began offering a digital voting option to all UOCAVA voters. “South Carolina has always been a leader in taking steps to help military and overseas citizens vote just as easily as if they were still at home,” said Marci Andino, Executive Director of the South Carolina State Election Commission. “This new platform will not only make voting easier for these citizens but also more secure than ever before.”