Every Vote Counts: Military and Overseas Voting Ballots

Breakdown of UOCAVA numbers

In the lead up to the Nov. 3, there have been countless articles about military and overseas voters. Some encouraging the voters to return their ballots as soon as possible. Others are speculating about how important these voters may be to the election. It has brought to the forefront of our minds the age-old myth that military and overseas ballots are only counted if it is a close race.

Traditionally, the majority of Americans head to their local polling place on election day and cast their vote in person with not much thought given to absentee ballots. Polls are often congested places on Election Day. In light of Covid-19 health risks, many states have turned to absentee voting as a method of cutting down on the number of people crowded into gymnasiums, churches, and other polling locations. However, military voters have voted via absentee ballot since the U.S. Civil War, and those protections were codified in 1986 with the Uniform and Absentee Citizen Voting Act (UOCAVA).

Election officials are required count every valid ballot that comes into their possession prior to their state’s relevant deadlines. For a ballot to be valid, a voter must have completed the ballot and relevant identification processes according to state law. This can include signatures on envelopes, proof of identification, witness certification, etc.

Deadlines for ballots to be received by election officials are different for each state and there are special considerations for military and overseas citizens- find yours here. For example:

  • In Florida, if you are living outside of the U.S. your ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and will be counted as long as it is received by the 10th day AFTER the election.
  • In New York, your ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3, and the received by the local election office by the 13th day AFTER the election.
  • In California, your ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and, for the November General election only, must be received no later than 17 days AFTER the election.
  • In Arizona, your ballot must be received by your election office by 7:00p.m. Nov. 3.

If you have concerns about the status of your ballot, contact your local election official, or check their website. States are required by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act to have some method by which UOCAVA voters can track their ballot. In some states there is a phone number to call, but many states have websites dedicated to tracking the status of your absentee ballot.

Election officials do not “call” elections. That is something done by the media . Instead election officials are responsible for counting each and every valid ballot that receive before deadlines. The media have methodology they employee in order to “call” an election. Even after the media has “called” an election, election officials continue their official counting process, which can include recounts. Local election officials provide their official count to a state’s chief election officer (oftentimes the Secretary of State), who will certify the official count. See more on that here. Record numbers of absentee ballots are expected this year which could cause some delay to election results, but rest assured that election officials will be working hard to get every validly submitted timely ballot counted

Election Safeguards – Combating Election Disinformation

In recent years, the prevalence of disinformation (i.e. information intended to deceive) online has flourished. Disinformation pertaining to the integrity and security of elections has proven no exception. Results from a recent study have shown that, during the 2016 election alone, 25% of the 30 million tweets preceding election day were found to spread either purposefully inaccurate or extremely biased information.

As the November 3rd election approaches, the focus of efforts at disinformation has increasingly centered around the mail-in voting process and the consequent ability of state and local election officials to accurately record election results. Combating disinformation may appear a herculean task; however, communicating the election safeguards in place is a practical and effective means through which election officials can do so.

Election Safeguards in the States

Election Official Training

In the United States, the administration of elections is handled at the state and local level. Although this leads to varying administrative and voting procedures across jurisdictions, every election official undergoes frequent and rigorous training to understand how to best conduct elections and ensure their integrity. Topics covered in these trainings range from polling place and vote center management to building ballots, developing audit trails, processing absentee ballots and ensuring systems security, among others. Each state possesses its own election manuals on similar topics that are reviewed and updated annually.

Central to election officials’ training is how to strengthen and employ election safeguards to prevent voter fraud via mail-in ballot. This has become particularly salient in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant expansion of mail-in options for voters in most states. These safeguards include, but are not limited to, processes for determining voter identification and eligibility (e.g. required presence of public notary or witnesses, signed voter affidavit and signature matching); checks for ballot tampering; and the ballot curing process. For a state breakdown on these processes, please refer to the National Conference of State Legislators’ resources on state verification of absentee ballot applications and state verification of voted absentee ballots

Each of these trainings work in tandem with one another to keep voter fraud via mail ballots to nominal levels. For example, a recent study conducted by the Brookings Institution revealed that from 2005 to 2018, there were 30 cases of alleged voter fraud (including in-person voting) in Colorado, one of the nation’s few entirely vote-by-mail states. With a total of 15,855,704 votes cast in this time frame, these instances of fraud constituted 0.00019% of total votes.

Election Infrastructure Security

Election safeguards, however, are not confined to minimizing the potential for human error among election officials. Election infrastructure safeguards also are in place to prevent – or at least mitigate – direct attempts to compromise the integrity of elections. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), “every state’s election infrastructure is protected by an intrusion detection system…and all 50 states and more than 2,500 local jurisdictions receive real-time threat information.” CISA also is available to election officials to provide cybersecurity assessments and detection and prevention of threats, as well as share factual, reliable election security information to further public education and awareness.

To augment these infrastructure safeguards, state and local election officials often undergo additional training explicitly focused on cybersecurity. For example, in recent years CISA developed the Elections Cyber Tabletop Exercise Package, which includes template exercise objectives, scenarios and discussion questions as well as a collection of cybersecurity references and resources. Example scenarios include the disruption of registration information systems, attacks on state board of election websites and ransomware infection of county computer systems Since 2017, CISA has conducted 55 elections-focused exercises. This includes four national exercises (three iterations of Tabletop the Vote and one Executive Elections Tabletop Exercise) and conducted dozens of tailored exercises for individual states and critical infrastructure partners. They have had exercise engagements with all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

This election year, numerous attempts have been made to undermine public confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. The prevalence of voter fraud has been drastically overstated, and the security of our election infrastructure called into question. Combating this disinformation will require concerted efforts extending far beyond this election cycle; however, election officials are already equipped with the necessary information to do so – the comprehensive nature of our election safeguards.

How did they get my voter information!?: Access and Use of Voter Registration Lists

Breakdown of UOCAVA numbers

There is a difference between general voter information that is readily available to the public in voter registration lists; and sensitive personal information that is protected by numerous safeguards.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires the chief election official of each state to implement a “single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized statewide voter registration list.” This list is to be “defined, maintained, and administered at the State level.”[1] The goal is to allow states to have a computerized list of voters. This allows state and local election officials immediate electronic access to  check the registration status of a voter. It also allows verification of voter information with other state, local and federal agencies; provides a means for list maintenance; and tracks certain appropriate voting histories.

Historically, these lists have been available for campaign purposes. But different states have different requirements for who can request a list of voters and what information that list includes.[2] Additionally, many states have specific Address Confidentiality Programs (ACP) to keep voter information confidential for certain classes of voters, such as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Some examples of state requirements for requesting a voter registration list include:

  • Alaska: Anyone can request a copy of the state voter registration list, which contains the names, addresses and party affiliations of all registered voters in the state. Voters may request in writing to keep their residential address confidential, if they provide a separate mailing address.[3]
  • Colorado: Voter registration lists are available to the public upon request and contain a voter’s full name, address, year of birth, political party and vote history. Information remains private for ACP participants and pre-registrants[4] (a procedure that allows individuals under 18 to register to vote so they are eligible to cast a ballot when they reach 18).
  • Massachusetts: State party committees, statewide candidate committees, state ballot question committees, the jury commissioner, adjutant general and any other individual, agency, or entity that the Secretary of State designates may request the list, which includes names and addresses. Information on ACP participants remains private.[5]
  • Idaho: Any person may request a voter registration list, which include voter name, address and precinct – excluding ACP participants.[6]

Thus far in 2020, there is no evidence that voter registration systems have been penetrated by foreign or domestic actors. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in conjunction with the FBI, has released a public alert about false claims of hacked voter information. The agencies believe the intention of these claims is to cast doubt of the legitimacy of U.S. elections.[7]

Importantly, that a voter registration system is experiencing an outage does not necessarily mean a voter registration information or other election system has been compromised.[8] In fact, there are many innocuous reasons such errors occur, including configuration errors and natural disasters. [9] Additionally, foreign and domestic cyber actors may make claims they have “hacked” these databases in order to undermine confidence in the November 3 election and U.S. election institutions. In reality, these actors merely have information that is publicly available.

Voter misinformation (false information) and disinformation (false information designed to mislead) campaigns by foreign and domestic actors have been and will continue to be an issue for U.S. election institutions. It is important that federal, state, and local election officials and voters continue to question the veracity of these campaigns and claims. State and local election officials in collaboration with federal agencies, such as CISA, work and train to conduct elections as safely, fairly and securely as possible.


[1] Help Americans Vote Act §303(a)(1)(A0(i)-§303(a)(1)(A)(viii)

[2] Access To and Use of Voter Registration Lists, National Conference of State Legislatures https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/access-to-and-use-of-voter-registration-lists.aspx

[3] AS §15.07.127 and §15.07.195

[4] Colo. Rev. Stat. §1-2-302, §24-30-2108, §1-2-227

[5] Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 51 §47C, §37, §44

[6] Idaho Code §34-437, §34-437A, §19-5706

[7] False Claims of Hacked Voter Information Likely Intended to Cast Doubt on Legitimacy of U.S. Elections https://www.cisa.gov/publication/false-claims-hacked-voter-information-likely-intended-cast-doubt-legitimacy-us

[8] See CISA Cyber Threats to Voting Processes Could Slow but Not Prevent Voting, https://www.cisa.gov/publication/cyber-threats-voting-processes-could-slow-not-prevent-voting

[9] CISA #Protect2020 Rumor vs. Reality https://www.cisa.gov/rumorcontrol

Voter Registration Modernization in Colorado: Implications for UOCAVA voters and the EAVS Section B Data Standard Pilot

benefits of the ESB data standard

The ESB Data Standard Roundtrip Pilot

In June 2020, The Council of State Governments (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative launched the first Elections Administration Voting Survey, Section B (ESB) Data Standard Pilot. Throughout the course of the pilot, election officials in three states — California, Colorado and Washington — will work closely with Overseas Voting Initiative staff to fully implement the ESB Data Standard in their local jurisdictions by March 2021.

Achieving full implementation will require election officials to develop an in-depth understanding of the standard’s conventions as well as the actions necessary to conform their jurisdiction’s existing data to the standard. The diversity among state processes of collecting and storing election data will bring about unique challenges as officials attempt to do so. These challenges may stem from jurisdictional variation in date formats, capitalization (e.g. some values entered as “mail” others as “Mail”) or country names (e.g. some entries spell out “Cote D’Ivoire” while others “Ivory Coast”), among others.

Colorado’s Progress Toward Full Implementation of the ESB Data Standard

Of the pilot’s participants, the Colorado Elections Division has uniquely positioned itself to overcome these challenges and fully implement the ESB Data Standard by March. This stems from the division’s previous involvement with the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) EAVS Section B Working Group as well as its efforts to modernize the state voter registration system.

In 2015, FVAP created the EAVS Section B Working Group. This group consisted of state and local election officials experienced in Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voting who sought to both reduce the burden of EAVS, Section B reporting and enhance its overall utility. Among the Working Group’s 13 members was Hilary Rudy, Colorado deputy director of elections.

Not only was Rudy a staunch advocate of adopting the ESB Data Standard, but she was also among the first to implement the standard in her state’s election jurisdictions.* By 2018, election officials had not only established internal procedures for conforming EAVS Section B data to the standard but had also begun standardizing voters’ country codes and names according to United States Postal Service (USPS) guidelines.

Although the ESB Data Standard requires physical addresses to be formatted according to ISO 3166, Colorado’s adoption of USPS standards significantly reduces the time and effort necessary to ensure the validity of UOCAVA voters’ country data. This has, in part, allowed the state’s Elections Division to supply the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative with its first set of ESB standard-compliant data within one month of the pilot’s kickoff. As of late August 2020, this data set had passed one of two validations necessary to ensure its accuracy and validity.

Benefits of Colorado’s Address Standardization Beyond the ESB Data Standard

Colorado’s voter address standardization was initially intended to facilitate implementation of the ESB Data Standard; however, the benefits of this work have extended much further. According to Rudy, both election officials and UOCAVA voters alike have experienced significant improvements in the voting process as a result of these efforts.

Prior to standardization, the ability of local election officials to conduct outreach to UOCAVA voters was limited. If valid, active addresses could not be derived from a voter’s state records, the likelihood of an election official to successfully contact an overseas voter was slim. Upon adopting USPS address standards, the success rate of this outreach improved significantly.

With the threat of U.S. withdrawal from the Universal Postal Union in 2018 and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the ability of local election officials to acquire additional contact information became increasingly important. Upon obtaining this information, Colorado election officials would not only be able to successfully inform voters of any international mail delays, but also educate them on alternative voting options. Contingency plans could then be developed to help prevent disenfranchisement.

Through the Election Division’s outreach to overseas voters, Rudy and her colleagues also found that former UOCAVA voters often failed to update their registration status upon returning stateside.** In response, the Elections Division was able to add a checkbox to various state forms allowing these voters to indicate a change in their registration status. This addition has improved Colorado’s overall voter registration system as well as the accuracy of their EAVS Section B data.

Despite the demands of a tumultuous election year, Rudy and her colleagues have continued to prioritize the standardization of the voter registration system and the improvement of the overall voting experience in Colorado. Not only has the Elections Division successfully incorporated country name dropdown boxes into its online voter registration system, but it has also developed Colorado’s first statewide ballot tracking system. Officials anticipate full implementation of this system by the end of the year. Through these efforts, the Elections Division has demonstrated their commitment to both strengthening the state’s voting system and fostering confidence in its efficacy.


*For further information on the successes and impacts of these efforts, read FVAP’s 2018 research note Data Standardization and the Impact of Ballot Transmission Timing and Mode on UOCAVA Voting.

**For more information about the conduct of elections in Colorado, please visit https://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/main.html

Mapping the UOCAVA Voting Process Through Modeling

NIST-MODEL-MAINITAN-REMOTE-VOTER-LIST

In 2017, the Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) published Using Technology to Enhance Military & Overseas Voting Vol. 2: Recommendations for Use of Data Standardization and Performance Metrics, a report identifying the need for the development and implementation of the Elections Administration Voting Survey, Section B (ESB) Data Standard. This standard seeks to capture anonymized, transactional level data about the voting experience of citizens living abroad as well as members of the armed forces and their family members. As jurisdictions fully integrate the ESB Data Standard with existing election administrative systems, election officials will achieve the following aims:

  • Enhance their ability to identify factors that lead to voter success and allow for analysis across jurisdictions.
  • Ease the burden of post-election reporting.
  • Support the identification of best practices to improve customer service, among others

For more information about the benefits of the ESB Data Standard, visit  https://ovi.csg.org/esb-data-standard/

Generating the Process Model

To conduct the process modeling exercise, the OVI—the interviewers—will convene a small group of state and local election officials—the subjects. Together, these teams will walk through each election jurisdiction’s UOCAVA voting processes and generate a visual model articulating the key steps within each process (see Figure 1).

Business Process Model for Maintaining remote voter lists.
Figure 1: Maintain Remote Voter List

According to John Dziurłaj, Solutions Architect at The Turnout and chair of the EAC-NIST Election Modeling Public Working Group , the size and structure of the subject group is vital to the success of this exercise. Smaller subject groups ensure quick resolutions to any disagreements and also facilitate discussion regarding deciding on and interpreting common terms. The size and composition of the subject group ensures that all discussions remain relevant to the exercise.

The Pennsylvania Pilot

In September of 2020, the OVI initiated its first process modeling pilot with state and local election officials from Pennsylvania. Both the workability of the state’s existing EAVS Section B data as well as their administrative capacity to collaborate with CSG on these efforts have uniquely positioned them to participate in the pilot.

In the months to come, five participating counties will assemble subject teams and attend virtual convenings to examine the UOCAVA voting process within their local context. By mid 2021, the OVI will publish a comprehensive analysis of the pilot’s outcomes and its implications for a future expansion.

For questions regarding the Overseas Voting Initiative process modeling exercises or the ESB Data Standard Roundtrip Pilot, please reach out to the OVI team or email elections@csg.org.

Election officials are planning for remote observation of post-election processes, including ballot duplication, due to COVID-19 pandemic

Definition of ballot duplication

This is an extraordinary year for election officials in many ways. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more voters will be voting by absentee or mail ballots rather than risk going into a crowded polling place. State laws on who can vote by absentee or mail ballot varies, but every election official in the country will see more absentee or mail ballots than typical. This will mean an uptick in the number of ballots that may need to be duplicated (or transcribed) before they can be sent through ballot tabulating equipment. See the first blog in our series on ballot duplication for more details on this process.

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Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) About Ballot Duplication

decorative-version of next sentence in blue and red text

A presidential election draws significantly more voters than a midterm or local election, resulting in more ballots to count. With expanded for vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee voting, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant increase in the number of ballots marked outside of the tightly controlled environment of a physical polling place.

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Continued Advancement in Ballot Duplication Technology Solutions: Pilots in the Field

Types of ballot duplication technology described in text

In this post, we’ll provide a general overview of the ballot duplication technology landscape and its innovation since OVI began to research this topic in 2016. We’ll then briefly highlight a local jurisdiction’s first use of ballot duplication technology in 2018 and how this advancement has proven helpful in processing their damaged or otherwise machine-unreadable ballots prior to counting.

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Ballot Duplication Technology: What Is It and How Does It Work?

How Ballot Duplication Technology Works

Our first post in this series on ballot duplication served as an explainer to demystify this term, which refers to the process used to transcribe a damaged or unreadable ballot so that it can be counted.

In our second blog post, we shared the Overseas Voting Initiative’s (OVI) latest recommendations for ballot duplication in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this post, we will define ballot duplication technology solutions and give a general overview of how these solutions work.

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Contingency Planning During COVID-19: Ballot Duplication in the States

Definition of ballot duplication

Throughout our blog series on ballot duplication, the Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) has asserted that elections conducted during the coronavirus pandemic will likely yield a higher volume of ballots returned via mail or other methods.

As state primaries have come to a close, this assertion has often proven to be true. In the West Virginia presidential primary alone, slightly more than half of the state’s 436,000 votes were returned by mail. According to West Virginia Secretary of State Andrew “Mac” Warner, this constitutes a roughly 47% increase from previous presidential primaries.

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