Military voters cast fewer absentee ballots in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's elections than they did in the previous midterms four years ago, according to data provided by the Military Postal Service Agency.
The numbers come as several key races that could determine which party controls the House remain too close to call Monday and may be determined by mail-in ballots, likely including those from service members. Two key Senate races that handed Democrats control of the upper chamber also came down to mail-in ballots.
The numbers come as feared post-election challenges to mail-in ballots from those who denied the results of the 2020 election have largely failed to materialize.
From the eighth week before Tuesday's elections to the week before, the Military Postal Service Agency postmarked and sent 9,800 absentee ballots to local elections offices, according to the data.
During the same time period in 2018, 12,662 military absentee ballots were postmarked and dispatched, the data show.
This year's figures are also significantly down from 2020, though it's common for voter turnout to be lower in the midterms than presidential elections. During the same period in 2020, 57,049 ballots were postmarked and dispatched.
While complete numbers on 2022's military voters, including how they were distributed geographically, won't be available until states submit data to federal authorities after the counting is done, the postal service is able to tally military ballots returned through the mail using tracking labels.
In total in the 2018 midterms, 119,167 uniformed service members voted absentee, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
Military and overseas voters can also return ballots electronically, but most uniformed service members have historically used the mail, according to the commission. For example, in 2020, 76.4% of service members who voted absentee returned their ballots through the mail.
Under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, troops and family members stationed away from their voting residence, whether overseas or elsewhere in the United States, are able to vote at the location they consider their home through absentee ballots.
With control of the House still undetermined nearly a week after Tuesday's elections, absentee ballots -- which are among the last votes to be counted since most states allow ballots to arrive after Election Day if they are postmarked by the election and some states don't allow them to be tallied before Election Day if they arrive earlier -- are expected to be decisive. Some states also allow post-election ballot "curing," or fixing minor errors on absentee ballots such as mismatched signatures.
Republicans are still favored to win the House by a very narrow margin, but Democrats have fared better than expected and could theoretically still win control of the lower chamber if at least 14 of the remaining 19 uncalled races go their way.
Democrats are particularly hanging their long-shot chances of winning the House on the uncalled races in California, where vote counting is slow because of the large volume of mail-in ballots.
Some dark horse candidates in closer-than-expected races in other states are also pinning their hopes to win on mail-in ballots. For example, on Thursday, Democratic House candidate Adam Frisch of Colorado, who mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, stressed the importance of counting military, overseas and cured ballots as his lead disappeared.
While Frisch was ahead of Boebert the night of the election and the next couple days, she overtook him Thursday as more votes were counted, and she remained ahead by about 1,000 votes as of Monday morning.
"Everyone in this district deserves to have their voice heard, regardless of political affiliation, and I am confident that each and every valid ballot will be counted," Frisch said in a statement. "In particular, we must honor and respect those who serve our country by ensuring that every military ballot is taken into account. Every vote matters in this incredibly close race and thousands of votes in Pueblo County and from military and overseas voters remain, and a considerable number of curable ballots remain as well."
Control of the Senate was also determined by mail-in ballots. On Saturday, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was declared the winner in Nevada over Republican Adam Laxalt, the state's former attorney general who served as a Navy lawyer for five years. Cortez Masto had trailed Laxalt in the days after the election, but overtook him as absentee ballots were counted. The call gave Democrats 50 seats in the Senate and control of the chamber for the next two years.
Mail-in ballots were also critical to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly's victory over Republican Blake Masters in Arizona. Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy veteran who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, narrowly led Masters immediately after the election, but mail-in and dropped off ballots gave him a big enough cushion that the race was called in Kelly's favor Friday.
In 2020, military ballots were caught up in then-President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn his loss and in the GOP's overall war against mail-in voting, which generally is used more by Democratic voters than Republicans.
Trump filed numerous unsuccessful lawsuits to stop vote counting after Election Day, something advocates for service members' voting rights warned could disenfranchise military voters since absentee ballots are usually in the last batches counted. He also filed a plethora of unsuccessful lawsuits claiming voter fraud without evidence, including targeting some military absentee ballots.
While observers feared this election would see similar efforts to delegitimize mail-in votes and to claim that slow counting was evidence of nefarious activities, most candidates who denied the 2020 election results and lost this election have smoothly conceded.
Still, there were pre-election GOP lawsuits to disqualify some mail-in ballots, including at least one unsuccessful attempt that specifically targeted military ballots.
In Wisconsin, a state legislator who has spread falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election filed a lawsuit days before the midterms attempting to halt the counting of military absentee ballots after a Milwaukee County elections official was charged with sending the legislator three fake military ballots. The elections official told investigators she was attempting to highlight what she considers a vulnerability in Wisconsin's election system. In that state, military voters do not have to register to vote and so don't have to show an ID when requesting an absentee ballot.
But a judge ruled against the legislator the night before the election, and military ballots were counted as normal in Wisconsin. In denying the legislator's request for a temporary restraining order to sequester military absentee ballots, the judge said that "seems to be a drastic remedy," according to the Associated Press.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.