Troops Are Voting Absentee in Record Numbers. But How Many of Their Votes Will Count?

voting registration drive at Fort Bragg
Sgt. Hubert D. Delany, right, a public affairs mass communication specialist assigned to the 3rd Phycological Operations Battalion (Airborne) (Dissemination), helps a fellow soldier register to vote though the Federal Voting Assistance Program as part of a voting registration drive at Fort Bragg, N.C., on October 13, 2020. (Liem Huynh/U.S. Army)

Service members have been mailing absentee ballots at a record pace amid growing concerns that many of their votes will not be counted under various state laws, postal delays and potential court challenges.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, more than 252,000 active duty service members voted by absentee ballot in the 2016 elections and the early numbers indicated that the 2016 total will be surpassed.

As of Oct. 22, the U.S. Postal Service reported that about 48,000 absentee military ballots had already been received, compared to 33,000 on the same date in 2016.

With the surge in military absentee voting have come fears that those ballots may not all be counted in a bitterly contested presidential election.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah James told that was a real concern of hers.

"I've never been worried about this before, but I'm absolutely worried about it now," she told in an interview this week.

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired Army colonel who served as a voting officer during one of his overseas assignments, issued a press release in late October in opposition to any arbitrary deadlines that would result in mail-in ballots going uncounted.

"Ballots postmarked on election day coming from service members in Baghdad should count just the same as those coming from voters in Baltimore," Brown said Oct. 30. "To impose arbitrary cut-offs and deadlines for counting these legal ballots undermines our elections and the morale of those serving their country overseas."

Brown told this week that his biggest concern was "the lawsuits that have been filed and will be filed" contesting mail-in ballots and the timeframes in which they must be postmarked to be counted after the Nov. 3 election. Those timeframes vary widely; a report from the organization Count Every Hero indicates Washington State guidelines allow the counting of military absentee votes received as late as Nov. 23.

In a campaign stop in North Carolina Monday, President Donald Trump said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court rulings last week backing up state laws that allowed for counting votes for three days after the election in Pennsylvania and nine days in North Carolina.

He charged that Democrats will use the extra time to "cheat," adding that "I wish the Supreme Court treated us as well, frankly." He also pledged that he would be sending lawyers into states to challenge results that go against him.

"Because we're divided" as a nation, "we're in trouble" on getting an accurate count, said former Tennessee Republican Rep. Zach Wamp, a member of the National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of former elected officials and retired military officers formed to monitor the legitimacy of the election.

In a conference call with reporters, Wamp and former Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat, warned of court challenges that could delay results and impact on the validity of absentee military ballots.

"We have no way of predicting the number of lawyers that are going to descend into the system," Roemer said.

James and Brown both expressed confidence that the military has done its part in ensuring that service members were well informed on procedures for voting absentee and the requirements of the respective states.

They also agreed that court challenges to mail-in ballots received after election day could result in service members not having their votes counted.

"We're going to have more mail-in ballots than ever before" in this election, said James, a member of the non-partisan Count Every Hero advocacy group that has called for every military ballot to be counted before a winner is declared.

However, she said, "it's a virtual certainty" that numerous lawsuits will be filed to challenge the mail-in vote.

"Unfortunately, I see this administration and the Trump campaign as determined" to dispute ballots received after election day, Brown said. He warned that what he viewed as the disenfranchisement of military voters "will have a negative impact on the motivation to serve."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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