The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act: Background and Issues
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Members of the military and U.S. citizens who live abroad are eligible to register and vote
absentee in federal elections under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act
(UOCAVA) of 1986. The law was enacted to improve absentee registration and voting for this
group of voters and to consolidate existing laws. Since 1942, a number of federal laws have been
enacted to assist these voters: the Soldier Voting Act of 1942 (amended in 1944), the Federal
Voting Assistance Act of 1955, the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975 (both the 1955
and 1975 laws were amended in 1978 to improve procedures), and the Uniformed and Overseas
Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986. The law is administered by the Secretary of Defense, who
delegates that responsibility to the Director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program at the
Department of Defense (DOD).
Improvements to UOCAVA were necessary as the result of controversy surrounding ballots
received in Florida from military and overseas voters in the 2000 presidential election. Both the
National Defense Authorization Act for FY2002 (P.L. 107-107; S. 1438) and the Help America
Vote Act (P.L. 107-252; H.R. 3295) included provisions concerning military and overseas voting.
The President signed P.L. 107-107 on December 28, 2001, and P.L. 107-252 on October 29, 2002.
The Defense Authorization Act for FY2005 amended UOCAVA as well, to ease the rules for use
of the federal write-in ballot in place of state absentee ballots. The act was signed by the President
on October 28, 2004. This report will be updated periodically to reflect new developments.
Summary of the Law.......................................................................................................................1
The Federal Voting Assistance Program..........................................................................................3
SERVE Internet Voting Program...............................................................................................4
Current Issues and Legislation in the 110th Congress......................................................................4
Author Contact Information............................................................................................................5
Several federal laws have been enacted since 1942 to enable those in the military and U.S.
citizens abroad to vote in federal elections. The original law, the Soldier Voting Act of 1942 (P.L.
712-561), was enacted to guarantee federal voting rights for members of the armed forces during
wartime. The law allowed members of the armed forces to vote for presidential electors, and
candidates for the U.S. Senate and House, whether or not they were previously registered and
regardless of poll tax requirements. The law provided for the use of a postage-free, federal post
card application to request an absentee ballot; it also instructed secretaries of state to prepare an
appropriate number of “official war ballots,” which listed federal office candidates, as well as
candidates for state and local office if authorized by the state legislature. The law “had almost no
impact at all” as it was enacted on September 16, only weeks before the November general 1
Congressional authority to regulate state voting procedures expired once the war ended, as the 2
law noted that its provisions applied “in time of war.” The Soldier Voting Act of 1942 was
amended in 1944. Under congressional war powers, the 1942 law mandated procedures for the
states to permit service members to vote, but the amended law of 1944 recommended that states
follow such procedures. The law was amended again in 1946 to include technical changes.
In 1951, President Truman asked the American Political Science Association (APSA) to study the
military voting problem and make recommendations. APSA completed its study in 1952 and the
President endorsed the association’s legislative recommendations, which were sent to Congress.
Congress passed the Federal Voting Assistance Act in 1955, which recommended, but did not
guarantee, absentee registration and voting for members of the military, federal employees who
lived outside the U.S., and members of civilian service organizations affiliated with the armed
forces. The law was amended in 1968 to include a more general provision for U.S. citizens
temporarily residing outside the U.S., expanding the number of civilians covered under the law.
The Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975 guaranteed absentee registration and voting
rights for citizens outside the U.S., whether or not they maintained a U.S. residence or address
and their intention to return was uncertain.
The current law, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (P.L. 99-410), was 3
signed into law by President Reagan on August 28, 1986. It was amended in 2002 by the Help
America Vote Act (P.L. 107-252) and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-
• Permit absent uniformed services voters, their spouses and dependents, and
overseas voters who no longer maintain a residence in the U.S. to register
1 U.S. Department of Defense, The Federal Voting Assistance Program, 11th Report, (Washington: December 1977), p.
2 P.L. 56-393, Sec. 1.
3 42 U.S.C.§1973ff-ff-6.
absentee (overseas voters are eligible to register absentee in the jurisdiction of
their last residence) and to vote by absentee ballot in all elections for federal 4
office (including general, primary, special, and runoff elections). The National
Defense Authorization Act of 2002 amended UOCAVA to permit a voter to
submit a single absentee application in order to receive an absentee ballot for
each federal election in the state during the year. The Help America Vote Act
subsequently amended that section of the law to extend the period covered by a
single absentee ballot application to the next two regularly scheduled general
elections for federal office. The Help America Vote Act also added a new section
that prohibits a state from refusing to accept a valid voter registration application
on the grounds that it was submitted prior to the first date on which the state 5
processes applications for the year.
• Accept and process any valid voter registration application from an absent
uniformed services voter or overseas voter if the application is received not less
than 30 days before the election. The Help America Vote Act amended that
section of the law to require a state to provide to a voter the reasons for rejecting 6
a registration application or an absentee ballot request.
• Furthermore, the law recommends that states accept the federal write-in absentee
ballot for general elections for federal office (provided the voter is registered, has
made a timely request for a state absentee ballot, the absentee ballot has not
arrived with sufficient time to return it, and the ballot is submitted from outside 7
the U.S. or its territories).
• The law also stipulates that voting materials be carried “expeditiously and free of 8
postage.” It recommends that states accept the Federal Post Card Application
(FPCA) from uniformed services voters, their spouses and dependents, and
overseas voters to allow for simultaneous absentee registration and to request an
absentee ballot. While all states and territories accept the FPCA, some require
that a voter submit the state registration form separately in order to be 9
permanently registered. Other recommendations in the law suggest that states:
• waive registration requirements for military and overseas voters who do not have
an opportunity to register because of service or residence;
• send registration materials, along with an absentee ballot to be returned
simultaneously, if the FPCA is not sufficient for absentee registration;
4 Sec. 107 (1). An absent uniformed services voter is defined as follows: a member of a uniformed service on active
duty or a member of the merchant marine who, by reason of such active duty or service in the merchant marine, is
absent from the place of residence where the member is otherwise qualified to vote; and a spouse or dependent of a
member of a uniformed service or a member of the merchant marine who is absent from his or her place of residence
where he or she is otherwise qualified to vote, because of the active duty or service of the member.
5 42 U.S.C.§1973ff-1(1), as amended by section 1606 (b) of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2002, and
subsequently, by section 704 of the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
6 42 U.S.C.§1973ff-1(2), as amended by section 707 of the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
7 42 U.S.C.§1973ff-1(3).
8 The United States Postal Service domestic mail manual notes that “To be mailable without prepayment of postage, the
balloting materials must be deposited at a U.S. post office, an overseas U.S. military post office, or an American
Embassy or American Consulate.”
9 42 U.S.C.§1973ff-3.
• expedite the processing of voting materials;
• permit any required oath to be administered by a commissioned officer in the
military or by any official authorized to administer oaths under federal law or the
law of the state where the oath is administered;
• assure mailing absentee ballots to military and overseas voters at the earliest
• provide for late registration for persons recently separated from the military.
In addition to the amendments to UOCAVA mentioned above, the Help America Vote Act of 2002
does the following:
• requires the Secretary of Defense to establish procedures to provide time and
resources for voting action officers to perform voting assistance duties; establish
procedures to ensure a postmark or proof of mailing date on absentee ballots;
requires secretaries of the armed forces to notify members of the last day for
which ballots mailed at the facility can be expected to reach state or local
officials in a timely fashion; requires that members of the military and their
dependents have access to information on registration and voting requirements
and deadlines; and requires that each person who enlists receives the national
voter registration form;
• amends UOCAVA to require each state to designate a single office to provide
information to all absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters who wish
to register in the state;
• amends UOCAVA to require states to report the number of ballots sent to
uniformed services and overseas voters and the number returned and cast in the
• amends UOCAVA to require the Secretary of Defense to ensure that state officials
are aware of the requirements of the law and to prescribe a standard oath for
voting materials to be used in states that require such an oath.
The Defense Authorization Act for FY2002 also included provisions that (1) required an annual
review of the voting assistance program and a report to Congress; (2) guaranteed state residency
for military personnel who are absent because of military duty; (3) continued the online voting
pilot project begun for the 2000 elections; and (4) permitted the use of DOD facilities as polling
places if they had previously been used for that purpose since 1996 or were designated for use by
The Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955 called for the President to designate the head of an
executive department to be responsible for and coordinate the federal functions described in the
law. President Eisenhower designated the Secretary of Defense, who delegated the responsibility
to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, as coordinator of the Federal Voting
Assistance Program (FVAP). Under the current law, the Director of the Federal Voting Assistance
Program administers the FVAP for citizens covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens
Absentee Voting Act. This office publishes the Voting Assistance Guide, a compilation of state
requirements and practices with respect to the federal law (including information on possible tax
liability incurred in some states based on residence, as determined by voter registration). The
FVAP office also maintains a toll free phone number to provide assistance to voters and to
military and federal government personnel who are responsible for implementing the law; the
office also maintains a website http://www.fvap.gov.
The FVAP administered an experimental internet voting program, the Secure Electronic
Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE), for military and overseas citizens in the November
2000 election. Those eligible to cast ballots via the Internet were voters whose legal residence
was in one of fourteen participating counties in Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. The
pilot project was limited to a total of 350 voters, of whom 84 cast absentee ballots over the
Internet. The FVAP issued a June 2001 report evaluating the program. An expanded version was
in place in seven states for the 2004 elections, but it was cancelled after a report reviewing the
program raised Internet security concerns. Among other conclusions, the report noted that
because fundamental vulnerabilities exist with Internet voting, a successful cyber attack on the 10
SERVE program could undermine the November election.
Several relevant election reform bills have been introduced in the 110th Congress and two have
received action. On October 1, the Senate passed S. 3073 which would require the Secretary of
Defense to collect ballots from overseas military voters and ensure their delivery to election
officials using express mail services. On the House side, H.R. 6625 was passed on September 17;
it would allow state election officials to designate facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs
as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act (P.L. 103-31, the “motor-
voter” law). H.R. 2835 (Faleomavaega) would extend UOCAVA law’s provisions to cover
legislative and gubernatorial elections in American Samoa. H.R. 4173 (Honda) would prohibit
states from requiring notarization of absentee ballots, broaden the use of the federal write-in
ballot, establish a grant program to inform overseas citizens about absentee voting, and would
require that overseas federal employees be informed about UOCAVA and to include information
about the law in U.S. passports. H.R. 4237 (Maloney) would prohibit states from refusing to
accept registration or ballot applications because they do not meet nonessential requirements,
would clarify postage markings on balloting materials, and would amend the law concerning
individuals who never lived in the U.S., notification of rejection of registration or ballot
applications, and the use of the diplomatic pouch to transmit absentee ballots. H.R. 5673
(McCarthy) would require the Secretary of Defense to collect marked absentee ballots from
overseas uniformed services voters and to guarantee their delivery to the appropriate election
officials before the polls close. The bill would also encourage the use of private providers of air
transportation to deliver ballots, which would allow individual voters to track the progress of their
voted ballot. S. 1487 (Feinstein) would prohibit states from refusing to accept registration or
ballot applications because they do not meet nonessential requirements and would permit
accepting a federal write-in ballot from an overseas voter if it is submitted from a location in the
United States. No action has been taken on any of these measures.
10 The report may be found at http://www.servesecurityreport.org/.
In October 2007, the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) launched a website to assist UOCAVA 11
voters by providing a means to electronically register and request a ballot. The OVF, a
nonpartisan, non-governmental entity, offers the necessary information to complete the
application process for each of the states, including a database of local election officials to whom
the applications must be delivered.
Reports on military and overseas voting in the 2006 election highlighted continuing challenges
faced by these voters, despite the efforts of the past several years to improve voting rates. The 12
GAO issued an evaluation of federal efforts to facilitate electronic absentee voting in June 2007
and the EAC reported in September 2007 the results of its survey of military and overseas voters 13
after the 2006 election. According to the EAC report, 33 percent of ballots requested by these
voters were cast or counted in the election; of those that were not counted, nearly 70 percent were
returned to election officials as undeliverable. GAO estimated that there are six million UOCAVA
voters and its report outlined a series of recommendations to DoD (the FVAP) and the EAC for
electronic solutions to overcome the obstacles posed by time and distance.
The Defense Authorization Act for FY2007, signed into law on October 17, 2006, as P.L. 109-
364, included a number of provisions on military and overseas voting. It continued the Integrated
Voting Assistance System (IVAS) for military voters and employees of the Department of
Defense through the 2006 elections and required reports from the Comptroller General on IVAS
and other efforts to utilize electronic mail, facsimile transmission, and the Internet to facilitate
registration and voting. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in
September 2006, which noted that two major challenges remained with respect to (1) simplifying
and standardizing absentee voting across the states, and (2) developing a secure electronic 14
registration and voting system.
Kevin J. Coleman
Analyst in Elections
11 The OVF website can be found at https://www.overseasvotefoundation.org/overseas/
12 The GAO report may be found at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07774.pdf.
13 The EAC report may be found at http://www.eac.gov/clearinghouse/2006-uniformed-
14 The GAO report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/htext/d061134t.html.