Can I Vote from a Military Conflict Zone?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

American military service members and families are deployed all over the world. Dr. Donald S. Inbody explains how they fulfill their civic duty to vote even if they are in a conflict zone.

Voting While at War

United States military service members serve to protect American rights and freedoms. While deployed, can they continue to participate in one of the most sacred American rights - voting? Yes, military personnel are eligible to vote from anywhere, including military conflict zones. American service members carry their right to vote wherever they go.

Meet Dr. Donald S. Inbody - Military Voting Expert

Dr. Donald S. Inbody is a retired U. S. Navy Captain who served for 28 years on active duty. He was a Senior Lecturer in Political Science for 11 years at Texas State University. He currently serves on the advisory board for U.S. Vote Foundation, and lends his expertise on military voter engagement. Dr. Inbody joins U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) to explain how members of the military exercise their right to vote from abroad.


Having lived and served overseas, you understand the barriers to voting experienced by American civilian and military citizens living and stationed beyond the borders of the United States. In fact, you testified before the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2013 about the status of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). What concerns did you emphasize with the commission?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

My principal finding was that, while local election officials have essentially solved the problem of getting an unmarked ballot to the individual overseas, whether military or civilian, the real problem is getting a marked ballot back to the appropriate election administrator in time to be counted. Ballots are either mailed or emailed to the voter. Mailed ballots must be returned by mail in most instances, which requires sufficient time to get the ballot back to the precinct. 

Emailing the unmarked ballot eliminates the mailing time getting the ballot to the voter, but still requires some means of getting it back once marked. The voter must then print it out, fold it correctly and then place it into the necessary envelopes (both an internal security envelope and an external mailing envelope).

All of that requires the voter to have access to a printer. In some instances the ballot is prepared in U.S. letter size (8.5x11 inches), while overseas many will be using A4 paper (8.3x11.7 inches), which can cause formatting and printing problems.

There have been experiments with faxing or emailing the marked ballot back, but these are not widely in use today.


How has this military voting experience changed over the past decade? What are the greatest challenges today?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

There has been little change over the past decade. 

The MOVE Act of 2009 required precincts to have all ballots available at least 45 days before the election, which provided time to mail a requested absentee ballot overseas and to get it back. 

Mail services are reasonably good from most countries, and service personnel are able to put their marked ballot into the Military Postal Service, which interfaces directly with the U.S. Postal Service. 

I wrote a short piece about this for the Washington Post back in 2015.


How does the way active-duty service personnel cast their ballots compare to the methods used by civilians? 

What does voting look like for a military service member who has been deployed?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

Active duty personnel cast their ballots exactly as civilians do. 

If they are based near their home precinct, they go there and vote as usual. 

When based away, they can request an absentee ballot - again just as civilians can. The ballot is then received, marked, and returned via a postal service. If desired, the service person can request an unmarked ballot to be emailed. Once printed out, it is then, in most cases, mailed back to the precinct.


Although individuals in the American military may follow shared processes to vote, they are not a uniform voting bloc. What has your research revealed about political participation and military voters?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

Military personnel vote essentially as do the general population. There is wide variance based on race, economic background, gender, and education - just like the general American population. Most research shows that officers tend to vote Republican while the enlisted ranks tend to be more evenly distributed. Most of the behavior can be explained by usual demographic predictive factors.  


Your 2016 book, The Soldier Vote: War, Politics and the Ballot in America, is the first comprehensive book on the history of military absentee voting in the United States. Would you highlight the role military absentee voting played in creating absentee voting for civilians?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

It was not possible to vote anywhere other than one’s home precinct until, during the opening months of the American Revolution, a group of soldiers from New Hampshire asked their hometown if they could cast votes in a local election. After some debate, they were given permission - perhaps the first documented case of absentee voting in America. 

Some states permitted limited absent voting in the War of 1812, but the dam broke in 1862 during the American Civil War. Because Republican politicians were concerned that their narrow victories in the 1860 election may not be protected in the 1862 midterm election, legislatures across the northern states passed laws permitting soldiers from their states to vote. 

Three methods were used during the war: 

(1) Vote by proxy - the soldier was permitted to designate an individual of their choosing to cast a ballot in their name; 

(2) Vote by ballot - the soldier was provided a ballot in the field and then had it sent back to his home state or precinct, either by mail or by courier; 

(3) Voting in the field - states sent election commissioners into the field and held elections in the camps where their state regiments were stationed. 

Of those three, only the second, absent voting, remains in use today. (Of note: France permits proxy voting in some circumstances today.)

Interest in allowing soldiers to vote waned after the Civil War as public attitudes about the Army soured. However, the Spanish-American War and World War I regenerated some interest, with many states passing laws permitting civilians the ability to vote absentee, as well as soldiers.

World War II saw Democrats pressing for giving American soldiers overseas an easier ability to vote in the 1942 and 1944 elections.

The ability for civilians based overseas to vote absentee did not arrive until decades after World War II and a strong campaign with Congress, ultimately resulting in the Uniformed and Overseas Civilians Voting Act of 1986. Further legislation has fine-tuned that law to where it is today.


It’s so interesting that the U.S. military not only protects our democratic system within our shores, but has also been a catalyst to expand access to voting abroad for American citizens. 

Do you have any recommendations for or predictions about the future of voting for active-duty service personnel?

Dr. Donald S. Inbody

I expect the technical and security issues with voting over the internet will be resolved in the next decade. Once it is seen to work with uniformed personnel, it will expand to civilians. However, given the recent political wrangling over election security and particularly about absent voting, that will take time. 

In the meantime, the principal solution is to maintain our education programs about how to access the voting system of the various states and territories, and to insist that our elected officials take seriously the ability of Americans overseas, particularly military personnel, to access the electoral system without undue restrictions or barriers.

US Vote’s Voter Accounts are a trusted resource for countless military personnel deployed all over the world. As an American service member, you can rely on US Vote to generate forms and send voting reminders so you can exercise your right to vote no matter where you are. Whether requesting an overseas absentee ballot or producing a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB), you and your family can rely on US Vote’s Overseas Initiative. While our nation counts on you, you can continue to participate in our democracy safely and easily with US Vote.