The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (“UOCAVA”) is a federal law that Congress passed in 1986 in order to allow certain groups and types of absentee voters to vote by absentee ballots in federal elections. Although there were a number of federal laws prior to UOCAVA that were enacted to assist these groups of voters in voting in federal elections, UOCAVA is a more comprehensive law that overrides all of those prior laws, such as the Solder Voting Act of 1942, the Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955, and the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975. Although UOCAVA does not affect absentee voting rights in state or local elections most states have their own laws that permit similar types of absentee voters to vote in state and local elections by absentee ballot.
UOCAVA extends absentee voting rights to members of the military, their families, and U.S. citizens who are living outside of the United States, and who no longer maintain a residence in the U.S. Basically, the UOCAVA establishes a “back-up” ballot, also referred to as the Federal Write-In Absence Ballot (“FWAB”), for a member of these groups, if he or she has applied for an absentee ballot, but has not received their regular ballot from the state of application. In the case of a U.S. citizen living abroad who no longer maintains a residence in the U.S., he or she is required by UOCAVA to register to vote in the last jurisdiction in which he or she lived prior to leaving the U.S. The FWAB is available for these citizens at military bases and embassies all over the world, and is also available online.
However, a vote submitted via FWAB by a member of the above-referenced groups is only valid in certain circumstances. For instance, if an overseas voter submits the FWAB from somewhere in the United States, and he or she is not a uniformed service member, the FWAB is not valid. Likewise, if the voter’s application for a regular absentee ballot is not received until after 30 days prior to the general election, or the equivalent deadline under state law, whichever is longer, then the FWAB is not valid. Finally, if a local election official receives a regular state absentee ballot from the voter, the FWAB is disregarded altogether.
Although UOCAVA assigns administrative responsibility for the program to the Secretary of Defense, that responsibility has been delegated to the Federal Voting Assistance Program (“FVAP”). In this context, the FVAP monitors compliance with UOCAVA, and works closely with states in order to ensure that these voting rights remain open for all covered citizens.
UOCAVA also designates the Attorney General as having enforcement responsibilities with regard to UOCAVA. In turn, the Attorney General has assigned enforcement authorization to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has brought a number of lawsuits and enforcement actions when it becomes aware that overseas absentee ballots have not be issued in a timely fashion, so that overseas voters’ ability to vote is at risk.