Are Republicans Really Going to Fight to Throw Out Military Ballots?

Assumptions about who service members support may be changing—and party tactics might too.

A soldier mans the turret of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
A U.S. soldier in Syria in October. Delil Souleiman/Getty Images

Donald Trump has made it clear he believes early vote tabulations tonight may look better for him than the final election results with mail-in ballots fully counted. “We should know the result of the election on Nov. 3, the evening of Nov. 3. That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it should be,” he said at a rally last weekend, echoing his campaign-long attempt to cast doubt on voting by mail during the pandemic. Republican lawyers around the country appear lined up to challenge vote counts. The president has mostly not mentioned military ballots, especially from active troops overseas, which have long been counted at least partly after Election Day. Are Republicans planning to carve out exceptions for military voters if more challenges arise? How are they planning to explain the difference to voters?

I reached out to Donald Inbody, a retired Navy captain who has taught political science at Texas State University, and who wrote The Soldier Vote, a book that explains how absentee ballots came to exist for military service members. I asked him if service members had taken note of Trump’s comments about the integrity of voting by mail, whether any of them were worried about their ability to vote this year, and what excluding their votes might mean for the election. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: When did it become typical for members of the military to vote by mail?

Donald Inbody: The reason we have absentee voting in this country at all is because state legislatures decided that they wanted to allow their soldiers who were away in the war to be able to vote. There was a small number in the revolution, more in the Civil War, even more in World War II. Then much later in the 20th century, states started realizing that there was a problem with absentee votes coming in from overseas. For both regular U.S. citizens who live overseas and military personnel who were stationed overseas, it takes a while for those ballots to get back by mail.

Do they typically get counted if they arrive late?

We’ve known a couple of statistics for a long time. The No. 1 reason that absentee ballots in general are rejected is because they come back too late to be counted. And then the No. 2 reason is a signature problem of some kind. But several states resolved the overseas-ballot-coming-back-too-late problem by saying, “As long as there is a postmark or reasonable evidence that the ballot was filled out prior to the Election Day, we will count it when it arrives late.” Texas has a law that it will accept ballots up to five days late. Florida will count them up to 10 days late. Other states have different numbers, and some don’t allow any. Any denial to count overseas ballots that come in after Election Day will necessarily include the military.

In a typical year, how many absentee ballots come from military members?

I’d have to go dig into the election commission data, but it’s not a lot. This year there’s going to be 150 million votes cast, probably at least. We have only about a million, maybe 1.2 million people on active duty, and maybe only a third of them are overseas. So you can see there’s a small physical number compared to the total number of possible voters. And of those people overseas, a high proportion of them won’t vote for whatever reason. So it’s a small number, but it’s a sizable, real number. It’s more than onesies and twosies. We’re talking probably in the tens or 20,000s or more. I think in Florida, they’re expecting 10 or 20,000, maybe. It’s a sizable number.

The military vote is concentrated in big electoral vote states, right?

Yeah. Florida, Texas, and California are the three most populous states in the country. That’s where most of the recruits come from, and that’s where most of those absentee ballots will go. Texas and Florida in particular because neither of those states collect an income tax. So a significant number of military people switch their residency to those states and stay there from a state tax point of view. So Texas and Florida end up with a very high proportion of the military votes. I think they’ll get counted. I’m not too worried about mailing votes with the exception of voter mistakes on filling out the absentee ballot. Year after year, the No. 1 reason absentee ballots aren’t counted is they get there too late, which is usually because the voter mailed them late. The second reason is a signature problem. They don’t sign the security envelope like you’re supposed to on an absentee ballot, or the signature doesn’t match their registration.

Would the number of late-arriving military ballots be enough to tip a state?

Probably not. It’s a sizable number of them, but not all of them are going to come in late. Most of them come in on time. There are only some that come in late. Also, it is clear to me from the data that I’ve researched that the military vote this year in particular is going to be more or less evenly split. It’s not going to be an overwhelming number of these military votes going for one candidate or the other. So I would say, with the possible exception of some local elections where the vote difference is very small, I doubt the military vote will make a real difference, and it certainly is unlikely to make a difference in the presidential election.

Has any party ever tried to disqualify the military from having their absentee ballots counted in U.S. history?

No. I reckon the closest thing was Florida, where initially the Democrats came out and said any ballots coming in after Election Day is invalid. Florida law was different at the time, but I noticed within 24 hours after they started that, they changed their tune though to, “No, of course we want our military people to vote.” So no, I haven’t seen anything like that.

Now what we have seen is either increased or decreased interest in allowing absentee votes by military and overseas citizens. Increasingly throughout the latter half of the 20th century, as the United States had more and more citizens working overseas because we became such a global power, there became more and more political pressure on Congress to allow them to actually cast votes. Prior to 1986, many states didn’t allow overseas citizens to vote, because the states argued that they weren’t residents of the state. And if you’re not a resident of the state, they said, you can’t vote in the state. One thing I know a lot of people forget is that voting is almost entirely controlled by states. There’s very little federal control over voting. It was only after 1986 occurred that it was clarified that overseas citizens would be allowed to vote in a state, even if they had had no intention of ever going home. As long as they declared a residency in that state, they could vote in that state.

Do you see anything unique in the Republican effort to challenge absentee votes this time?

The signature issue is an interesting one this year, because it appears that for whatever reason—unlike previous years where the Republican Party has assumed, I think incorrectly, that the vast majority of these overseas military ballots were going to support Republican candidates—this year, we’re seeing them say if there was any any suspicion that the two signatures didn’t match, they were going to challenge them all. So that’s an interesting switch in that. Back in Florida, 2000, both Republicans and Democrats assumed that the majority of those absentee ballots were going to be for the Republican candidates. In the first 24 hours, Democrats were saying, “Oh no, no, we don’t want those ballots. They’re illegitimate.” And the Republicans, “No, no, no. We want them to count.” It all has to do with who do they think is going to vote for their guy or the other guy. It sounds kind of cynical, but I think it’s true. If you want to be able to predict what politicians and political parties will do and how they’ll come down on these issues, go through those items. They allowed women to vote because a majority believed that was going to help their political party. They allowed 18-year-olds to vote after the Vietnam War because they thought the same thing. The altruistic or moral or ethical justification for those things usually comes later.

In the Civil War and World War II, it was when Republicans in the North who were advocating for and passing in their state legislatures soldier voting laws to allow soldiers who were away in the Civil War to vote. Democrats were against it. Why? Because they assumed, probably correctly, that most soldiers were going to vote for the Republicans. Fast forward to World War II, guess which political party began advocating for absentee ballots for soldiers? It was the Democratic Party because they assumed, probably correctly, that most of those soldiers were going to vote for Franklin Roosevelt.

Can you speak at all to how members of the military feel about Trump’s rhetoric on voting this year? Have you heard from anyone who is worried that their vote won’t count?

Well, this idea about their vote not counting is a relatively recent thing. Trump and some other Republicans have not made any notion about not wanting to count these absentee ballots until just the last few days. I think they’re really worried about Pennsylvania. Military Times published some polls, and there was clearly negative reaction among military personnel to some of those previous comments that Trump made about losers and all that kind of stuff. But I doubt if any comments he’s made changed anybody’s mind, because in this election, for the most part, people have made up their mind on who they’re going to vote quite a long time ago. If you think Trump is the second coming of Jesus Christ, then it doesn’t matter what anybody says, you’re going to vote for Trump. And if you’ve already believed that Trump is the worst president in the world, you’re going to vote for Biden. And it doesn’t matter what comes out. I do believe that there was some discomfort with some of those comments, but I don’t think it changed any votes. I’ve heard from military personnel who are solidly behind Trump say, “Yeah, we know our guy is a jerk, but we like what he’s doing otherwise.” So the jerkness of the candidate is an irrelevant factor. They just don’t care.