Military 101: The U.S. Navy

By Joel Paul, Policy Analyst

The United States Navy is one of the country’s seven uniformed services. It is most often the first service to contact adversaries and is the United States’ principal power projection force. Through the use of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, the U.S. Navy keeps ships near strategic interests and acts as a deterrent to aggression against the U.S. and its allies, as well as maintains maritime law.

The Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces whose primary mission is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and ensuring freedom of the seas. The Navy operates globally, providing maritime and economic security and power projection in support of national interests.


Per the U.S. Navy official website, “the United States is a maritime nation, and the U.S. Navy protects America at sea. Alongside our allies and partners, we defend freedom, preserve economic prosperity, and keep the seas open and free…” The Navy does this through force projection of forward deployed assets such as carriers strike forces and overseas bases.


Officially, the Navy was established in 1798. However, naval historians credit the start of the Navy to the Continental Navy of 1775, which was disbanded after the American Revolution.

The history of the Navy is divided into two ages: the “Old Navy” from the age of sail and including the ironclads of the US Civil War and the “New Navy” that emerged afterward based on constant modernization. The Navy still maintains the USS Constitution, which is the oldest ship in the fleet and was launched in 1797. Currently, the USS Constitution is maintained by Naval officers and crew.

The “Old Navy” began when U.S. merchant traffic came under the fire of Barbary pirates from Northern African states. President George Washington’s administration requested Congress pass the Naval Act of 1794 creating a standing U.S. naval force and authorization to build six frigates. Frigates are smaller ships built for speed and maneuverability and used for patrol or escorts for larger ships. The U.S. Naval Academy was established in 1845 on the grounds of Old Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland, where future officers, called “midshipmen,” train today.

By 1882, the U.S. Navy was outdated and ready for modernization in both size and style of ships. The U.S. was ready for a “New Navy.” Over the following years, the Navy built modern steel armored cruisers and some of the first battleships. By 1898, the investment showed, with the U.S. winning two major naval engagements in the Spanish-American War. This success led to the Navy’s wider reach and over the next century the Navy maintained forces in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. By the end of WWI, the Navy had more officers and sailors in uniform than the British Royal Navy. 

The modern U.S. Navy is the direct result of lessons learned in WWII and the War on Terror. Namely, the U.S. needs to have force projection, or the ability to deploy and maintain forces, and a fleet that is capable of multiple roles. Along with maintaining ships, boats and other marine crafts, the Navy also has the second largest fleet of aircraft, behind the U.S. Air Force.

The Fleet 

The Navy deploys many types of ships and other craft. In general, ships are classified as carriers, cruisers and destroyers, submarines, amphibious crafts, littoral combat ships, and hospital ships.


The largest ships in the fleet are, by far, the aircraft carriers. Whether designed to accommodate jet fighters or helicopters, these ships focus on force projection, securing maritime law and deterring aggression against the United States or its allies. There are four classes of carriers: the Gerald R. Ford, the Nimitz, the America and the Wasp. The current Gerald R. Ford-class of carriers has a complement of over 500 officers and almost 3,800 enlisted in its crew. When battle-ready, a Nimitz-class carrier has over 5,600 crew of which about 2,300 belong to the Air Wing. The Air Wing is the planes, officers and crew that make the aircraft carrier such a potent offensive force; it is semi-autonomous from the carrier itself which is run by the ship’s officers and crew.


Cruisers are large, multi-mission ships that often work with carriers and other craft to complete missions. Given their size and speed, cruisers often serve as the flagships. Additionally, the ships are equipped with long range missiles.


U.S. submarines are among the most technical vessels and are used as platforms for guided and ballistic missiles, anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance. Submarines can also covertly bring Navy SEAL teams into hostile environments.

Established during the President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Navy SEALS (Sea, Air and Land Team) serve a highly specialized role in U.S. military operations specializing in unconventional warfare. SEAL duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Conduct insertions and extractions by sea, air or land to accomplish covert missions.
  • Capture high-value enemy personnel and terrorists around the world.
  • Collect information and intelligence through special reconnaissance missions.
  • Carry out small, close-fire missions against military targets.
  • Perform underwater reconnaissance and the demolition of man-made or natural obstacle prior to an amphibious landing.

Amphibious Force

The Navy Amphibious Force can move large numbers of U.S. Marine forces quickly through landing crafts and helicopters, all while providing fixed wing aircraft support. Amphibious warfare is an offensive military operation using naval ships to place ground and air assets onto hostile shores in a designated landing zone. Throughout history, these operations were conducted using the ship’s boats as a primary method of delivering U.S. Marines to the shore. Generally, boats can be carried by ships and have a command and crew even in port.

Littoral Combat Ships

The newest additions to the Naval Fleet are the Freedom and Independence-class of littoral combat ships, which are designed for operations close to the shore. These ships are designed to switch operation goals with ease.

Hospital Ships and Other Craft

The rest of the fleet consists of support ships ranging from resupply ships, oilers, hospital ships and numerous smaller craft.

The Navy also operates its own construction battalion, known as the Seabees. The Seabees were established by Congress in response to the need for facilities to support the island-hopping U.S. strategy of the Pacific during WWII and the need to create airfields, barracks, hospitals, mess halls and more around landing zones to serve as forward bases of operations.

Organization and Ranks

Organizationally, the Navy is different from other military branches, where they have specific names for units of personnel performing a similar task. These units generally form departments upon each ship, such as deck, supply, operations and others. Naval fleets are made up of all the ships under a Commander in Chief (CINC) and individual ships can be deployed separately or with other ships depending on the job. Squadrons, task forces, and groups are assembled from the fleet to perform specific missions in support of situational or strategic responses to environmental, enforcement or political objectives.

Ranks of Enlisted and Officers

Ranks in the Navy differ from other branches in that they are called “ratings.” Enlisted ranks range from seaman recruit to master chief petty officer, while officer ranks range from ensign to admiral. Like other branches of the military, Navy personnel are assigned specific roles and responsibilities based on their rank and expertise or “rating.” One example is the crossed anchors insignia of the boatswain’s mate; boatswain’s mates are personnel who keep the equipment on a ship or boat in good working order. Navy officers can also hold rank as a Chief Warrant Officer, which are specialized officers who lead and manage specific areas on a ship that require a commissioned officer.

Seaman Recruit (E-1)

Seaman Apprentice (E-2)

Seaman (E-3)

Petty Officer Third Class (E-4)

Petty Officer Second Class (E-5)

Petty Officer First Class (E-6)

Chief Petty Officer (E-7)

Senior Chief Petty Officer (E-8)

Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9)

Command Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9)        

Officer Ranks:

Ensign (O-1) – gold bar

Lieutenant Junior Grade (O-2) – silver bar               

Lieutenant (O-3) – two silver bars

Lieutenant Commander (O-4) – gold leaf

Commander (O-5) – silver leaf

Captain (O-6) – silver eagle              

Rear Admiral Lower Half (O-7) – silver star

Rear Admiral Upper Half (O-8) – 2 silver stars

Vice Admiral (O-9) – 3 silver stars

Admiral (O-10) – 4 silver stars

The highest-ranking enlisted member of the Navy is the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. The Commander-in-Chief is the top rank for both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets and they hold the rank of Admiral. The Chief of Naval Operations is the highest officer in the Navy and holds the rank of Admiral. Five-star Admirals are only awarded during times of declared war.

Jobs within the Navy

Like all branches of the military, the Navy is an all-volunteer force. Personnel are recruited by the U.S. Navy and are screened through one of the 65 Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) throughout the country. After basic training, seaman recruits are either sent to the fleet as seaman where they can apply for an occupation or are sent to a follow-on school directly from recruit training.

The “A,” “B” and “C” schools in the Navy refer to different levels of training and education. “A” school is the first school that a sailor attends after completing boot camp. It provides specialized training in a specific occupational field or rating. “B” school is the second level of specialized training that a sailor may attend, focusing on more advanced skills and knowledge within their rating. “C” school is the third level of training, offering even more specialized instruction within a sailor’s rating. These designations are not arbitrary; they reflect the sequential nature of the training and education provided to sailors in the Navy, with each level building upon the previous one to develop expertise in specific roles and responsibilities.

Most officers come into the Navy through one of three methods: the U.S. Naval Academy, Officer Candidate School or through a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program on a college campus. Once commissioned, officers will go to follow-on schools in aviation, surface warfare, submarine warfare, supply or judge advocate general. Most of these schools are in Newport, Rhode Island, while the U.S Naval Aviation Schools Command is in Pensacola, Florida, and trains aviation specialties for the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and partner nation’s officers and enlisted personnel.

The employment areas of surface warfare, aviation, submarine, construction, logistics, administration and intelligence offer a variety of opportunities for personnel to explore whatever specialty fits their skill set. There are 12 aviation military occupation specialty codes (MOS); seven construction military occupation specialty codes; 28 general military occupation specialty codes that range from boatswain’s mate, mess specialist and gunner’s mate to quartermasters and yeoman; there are ten engineering military occupation specialty codes.

U.S. Navy personnel fulfill critical job functions as:

  • Operations specialists — Coordinate and direct the movement of ships and aircraft, as well as monitoring and controlling communications and sensors.
  • Aviation — Operate helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for search and rescue, maritime law enforcement and other missions.
  • Engineer and maintenance — Maintain and repair ships, aircraft and other equipment used by the fleet.
  • Personnel — Perform human resource functions such as administrative duties, maintenance of records for officers and crew, and program management.
  • Intelligence — Gather and analyze intelligence to support Navy missions and contribute to national security efforts.

All the positions within the Navy center around the Navy’s need to maintain, train and equip naval forces that are combat-ready and capable of deterring aggression, maintaining maritime freedom and winning wars. This requires ships and ground forces with highly skilled officers and crews to maintain and operate some of the world’s most sophisticated technology.

Evolving CSG, Dept. of Defense Initiative Continues Enhancing Accessibility for U.S. Military, Overseas Voters

By Morgan Thomas

The Overseas Voting Initiative continues to conduct research, analyze Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act voter data, and cultivate dialogue surrounding innovative strategies to enhance voter accessibility through the act. 

The OVI is a collaboration between The Council of State Governments and the Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program focused on improving voting access for U.S. military and overseas voters. 

Service members, their families and other U.S. citizens residing overseas face many challenges when trying to obtain and cast their ballots in U.S. elections. Service members deployed to remote areas, students studying abroad or government workers working abroad in difficult-to-access locations must overcome hurdles to exercise their right to vote. Mail operations can be intermittent or even nonexistent in some locations. Power, and therefore access to electronic communications, can also be unreliable. 

Voters facing any of these challenges are protected under the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which is also commonly referred to as UOCAVA. UOCAVA was enacted by Congress in 1986 and provides U.S. citizens and their eligible family members a legal basis for absentee voting requirements. Each U.S. citizen abroad faces unique challenges, making it difficult for both the voter and election officials. 

The Overseas Voting Initiative works with local and state election officials who comprise its OVI Working Group. The Working Group is divided into subgroups that focus on specific areas of interest centered on improving voting accessibility for UOCAVA voters. Through these subgroups, the OVI has conducted research, promoted technology and policies, informed state policymakers about overseas voting issues, and shared best practices with state and local election officials and other stakeholders. Some critical areas of research include: 

UOCAVA balloting solutions. 

Improving communications and connections between UOCAVA citizens and their election offices. 

Making voter registration easier for UOCAVA citizens. 

Considering how DOD digital signature capabilities can facilitate document signing by certain UOCAVA voters. 

Examining how the ballot duplication process can be improved through transparent standard operating procedures and new technologies. 

In addition to these areas of research, the OVI has also created a data standard for the Election Administration and Voting Survey, or EAVS, Section B Data. This standard allows election officials and the Federal Voting Assistance Program to conduct a deeper analysis of UOCAVA voter behavior. The Working Group analyzes and makes recommendations for changes to EAVS Section B Data to improve the survey to serve the voters and election officials better. 

Now in its 10th year, the OVI has conducted more than 27 Working Group meetings in 14 states and U.S. territories, one U.S. Embassy, and visited 11 military installations. In early spring 2024, the OVI will be releasing a series of modules identifying best practices for communicating with military service members, their families and citizens living abroad. 

Ranked Choice Voting: What, Where, Why & Why Not

By Jennifer Horton and Dr. Dakota Thomas

In 2022, Nevada voters approved a ballot measure to change its elections to ranked choice voting. Since this ballot measure is a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment, the measure will again require approval in 2024 to take effect. If the state votes to reapprove ranked voting, it joins a growing number of U.S. cities, counties and states in using a ranked choice voting system for elections.

What is Ranked Choice Voting?
Ranked choice voting is any system for counting votes that gives voters the option to rank their choices in order of preference. If a voter likes candidate A, but would prefer candidate B over candidate C if their favorite (candidate A) did not win, they could rank the three candidates accordingly on their ballot (A > B > C).

How do votes get counted in such a system? There are multiple methods, but the most common one is the alternative vote. During the alternative voting process, the candidate receiving a majority of first choice votes wins and the election is over. If no one wins a majority of votes, the ranked choices come into play. In the most common form of ranked voting, the last-place candidate gets eliminated (i.e., the candidate with the fewest first choice votes), and the voters who chose that candidate as their first choice have their votes reallocated to their second choice. For example, if candidate A came in last place, the vote would go to candidate B. This process continues until a candidate achieves a majority of votes.

Ranked choice voting can play out in different ways depending on the exact version of ranked voting a locality adopts. Most places utilizing ranked voting elect a single winner in a given election, while other locations use a multi-winner format of ranked voting where multiple officials are elected in a single contest, such as for a city council. Most forms of ranked voting are considered majoritarian (i.e., they try to ensure majority rule), while others are considered proportional (they focus instead on maximizing representation for different parties). Some common forms of ranked voting are explained in the table below.

Comparison of Ranked Choice Voting Systems

Ballot Counting SystemOutcomeSeats Elected at OnceCounting MethodNotable Examples
Alternative Vote (AV)Majoritarian1Candidates with fewest first preference votes are eliminated successively and their voters go to their next choices until one candidate has a majority.Alaska and Maine, Australia and Fiji, the Oscar for “Best Picture” and the Hugo Awards for Science Fiction
Two Round – Majority RunoffMajoritarian1Candidates who are not in first or second place in total votes are eliminated in the first round. The second round includes only the top two candidates.Georgia and Louisiana, France presidential elections
Two Round – Majority Plurality
Majoritarian2+Candidates who do not reach a certain threshold of votes are eliminated in the first round. The second round includes all candidates that met the threshold.France legislative elections
Preferential Block Vote or Multiple Transferable Vote (MTV)Majoritarian2+Candidates with the fewest first preference votes are eliminated successively and their voters go to their next choices until one candidate has a majority. The count is then repeated with the elected candidates removed until all seats are filled.Some local elections in Utah
Single Transferable Vote (STV)Proportional2+Candidates with fewest first preference votes are eliminated successively and their voters go to their next choices until all seats are filled.Some local elections in Massachusetts, Michigan, and California, Ireland and Malta legislative elections
Borda CountVaries with number of seats awarded at once1+Candidates with the highest rankings are elected successively until all seats are filled.Kiribati presidential nominations and Nauru legislative elections, the Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), the Heisman Trophy for college football
Source: Table adapted from “Principles of Comparative Politics” by
William Roberts Clark, Matt Golder and Sona Nadenichek Golder.

What States Use Ranked Choice Voting?
As of January 2023, ranked choice voting is used in Alaska and Maine, in addition to 53 cities and counties representing roughly 11 million voters. Military and overseas voters cast ranked voting ballots during federal runoff elections in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. The map below shows states where ranked voting is used for at least some elections.

Note: This map only includes uses of ranked voting that result in a candidate being elected to office. Party primaries, conventions and other nominating processes are not included in this data, but some states do use ranked voting for those processes.

When and how jurisdictions utilize ranked voting varies widely. Some areas use it only for primary elections but not general elections, while others use it in general elections but not primaries. There are also other areas that use it for both. Jurisdictions can also elect to use ranked voting for electing some offices but not others. Alaska, for example, uses ranked voting only for its general elections, while its primaries use a top four system in which voters choose their top candidate. The top four candidates then go to the general election. Other locations continue to use ranked voting as a way to replace primaries entirely, consolidating primaries and general elections into a single contest. Many cities in the U.S., including Salt Lake City and other Utah cities, have implemented ranked voting as a way to consolidate nonpartisan primaries and general elections into one election.

States with ranked choice voting
Maine first adopted ranked voting in 2016 for state and federal primary elections. It was then adopted in 2018 for all general congressional elections. The state later expanded its use to presidential general elections beginning in 2020. Use of ranked voting will begin in 2024 for presidential primaries.

Alaska enacted ranked choice voting by ballot measure in 2020. Its first use came during a special election in August 2022 that resulted in Rep. Mary Peltola defeating former Alaska Gov. Sara Palin for an open U.S. congressional seat. The state uses ranked voting for all state and general elections.

In Nevada, voters recently approved a ballot measure changing the state’s elections to a system with nonpartisan primaries that allow voters to choose candidates from any party. After the primary, ranked voting occurs for general election, at which time voters can rank their top five candidates in order of preference. Implementation requires a vote of approval again in November 2024. The state will use ranked voting for state and federal elections but not presidential.

Cities with ranked choice voting
The same story is also present in the 53-plus cities utilizing ranked voting. For example, since 2009 Minneapolis has used it for 22 city offices and some park board and board of taxation seats. New York City employs its use for city primary, as well as special elections for mayor and other citywide offices. Since 2021, ranked voting has also been used in New York City to elect borough presidents and city council. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, it has been used to determine mayor, city council, and municipal judge elections since 2018.

More to come
Nine cities and the state of Nevada had ballot measures concerning ranked voting in 2022. Of these, all but two passed:

  • Nevada – approved in 2022; reapproval required in 2024 to go into effect.
  • Portland, Oregon – adopted; will begin in 2024.
  • Seattle – adopted for primary elections.
  • Evanston, Illinois – adopted; will begin in 2025.
  • Fort Collins, Colorado – adopted.
  • Ojai, California – adopted.
  • Multnomah County, Oregon – adopted.
  • Portland, Maine – adopted.
  • Clark County, Washington – failed.
  • San Juan County, Washington – failed.

Why Use Ranked Choice Voting?
Those who advocate for the adoption of ranked choice voting cite a number of possible benefits, including those detailed below:

Ensuring majority rule
Elections with more than two candidates can often result in a candidate winning with less than 50% of the vote, leading to a winner who doesn’t have a majority of support from the public. Maine voters were driven to adopt ranked voting after nine of its 11 gubernatorial elections were won with less than 50% of the vote during a 20-year period, including three governors’ races with winners who had less than 40% of votes. With ranked choice voting, if no candidate receives a majority of voters’ first choices, a process is used to reallocate voters to their next preferences until a winner gets a majority, upholding majority rule.

More choices and more influence for voters
Ranked choice voting can also give voters more choices, allowing them to vote for a viable candidate without having their vote placed used on a preferred candidate who is unlikely to win. If their first choice doesn’t win, they know their vote will count for their next most preferred choice(s). Ranked voting can enable two similar candidates to compete without fear of possibly splitting the vote. This may help reduce the spoiler effect, which is the phenomena of two similar candidates or parties losing to a very different candidate or party because voters couldn’t effectively coordinate on one choice. Currently, some candidates and parties — usually those from underrepresented groups in elected office — are pressured to stay out of races for fear of acting as a spoiler.

Ranked voting also helps ensure that voters’ preferences actually influence the outcome of an election. For example, in 2020, more than 3 million Democratic primary voters voted for a candidate who had already withdrawn from the race. In 2016, more than 5% of votes were cast for Republican candidates that had withdrawn from the primaries. These specific kinds of “wasted votes” often occur with early voting when voters fill out ballots a week or more ahead of election day. Ranked voting enables these voters to have backup candidates if their top choice drops out.

Ranked voting is an especially valuable tool for military and overseas voters who encounter a number of barriers to voting. Federal law requires states to provide these voters with ballots at least 45 days prior to elections, but runoffs require sending a new set of ballots, delaying the runoff and reducing turnout. By the time military and overseas voters receive their ballots, candidates may no longer be in the race, leading to the possibility of more “wasted votes.” Since voters can rank candidates on a single ballot with ranked voting, their vote still counts if a runoff occurs or a candidate drops out. Currently, six states use ranked voting for its overseas voters: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

More civility in campaigns
In ranked voting elections, candidates have an incentive to court as many voters as possible in hopes of winning. If they are not the first choice of voters, they can succeed by acquiring enough votes as the second or third choices. This can lessen the tendency to run negative campaigns involving attacks on opponents and instead encourage efforts to positively interact with as many voters as possible, even those who may not view them as a first choice. According to a survey of Republican primary voters in Virginia, the use of ranked voting resulted in a more positive congressional primary in 2022. A 2013-14 survey of voters in ranked voting and non- ranked voting cities revealed that voters in ranked voting cities were more satisfied with the tone of campaigns, and noticed less criticism and negative campaigning, than non-ranked voting city voters.

Lower cost for elections and improved turnout
By replacing primaries and runoffs with ranked voting, jurisdictions can save money and improve voter turnout. In non-ranked voting elections, when no candidate meets a necessary threshold, jurisdictions must hold a second election that costs taxpayer money. New York City saves $20 Million every time ranked voting avoids a runoff. When the two rounds of voting are consolidated into a single election, there also tends to be higher and more representative turnout. Throughout the past twenty years, federal primary runoff elections have seen a median turnout decline of 37% between the first and final rounds, whereas a 2016 study found ranked voting general elections are associated with a 10-point increase in voter turnout compared to the primary and runoff elections they replace.

Broader representation
In elections with multiple winners, proportional ranked voting enables diverse groups of voters to elect their candidates of choice. In single winner races, ranked voting promotes the representation of historically underrepresented groups, including women and people of color. In one study, researchers found that women’s representation increased in cities using proportional ranked voting during the early 1900s. It was also revealed that single-winner ranked voting has increased women’s representation in the 21st century. Another study found that cities utilizing ranked voting also have better electoral outcomes for women and people of color.

Voter support for ranked choice voting
For all the discussion from party leaders and others about whether ranked choice voting is a good idea, voters themselves express broad support for the practice and find it easy to use. After using ranked voting for the first time in 2022, 85% of Alaska voters described it as “simple.” In New York City, 95% of voters across all ethnic groups who participated in the city’s 2021 primary elections described the ranked voting ballot as “simple to complete”; nearly 80% said they understood it extremely or very well; and 77% supported using it for future elections. After using ranked voting for the first time in 2018, 94% of Santa Fe voters reported feeling either very or somewhat satisfied with the format and more than 70% supported its use in future city elections.

Why Not Use Ranked Choice Voting?
Some opponents of ranked choice voting dislike it for one of the same reasons its supporters promote it: it can weaken the far right or left wings of the two main political parties. These critics worry it could weaken the influence of the two main parties and allow more centrist candidates an easier path, thus diluting the power of very progressive or very conservative politicians and policies.

Others worry the changes to filling out a ballot could confuse or deter voters, possibly disenfranchising groups of people who aren’t aware of how to use the ranking mechanism. Another concern is the time it takes to count ranked choice ballots, which could lead to a lack of confidence in the results.

Still others take issue with specific forms of ranked choice voting, arguing that in some cases it can lead to a person winning who doesn’t have majority support. This can happen if a candidate starts off with fewer first-choice votes, and thus gets eliminated, but may perhaps have a greater number of second choice votes.

There’s also the issue of voters not using all of their ranking slots or having all of their ranked picks eliminated, which can lead to “ballot exhaustion” — a drop off in the total number of votes being counted in the later rounds of counting.

The Future of Ranked Choice Voting in the U.S.
As state and local governments continue to reconsider how best to run their elections with an eye toward issues like election security, trust in democracy, and voter access, ranked choice voting is one tool they are considering and often adopting. There are certainly many things to consider when evaluating whether to use ranked voting. Given its popularity with many voters and advantages over other systems of voting, ranked choice voting is worth a closer look.

A Guide to Resources from the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative

The goal of the Overseas Voting Initiative is to improve the voting process for citizens identified in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. The Council of State Governments assists the Federal Voting Assistance Program in aligning its ongoing efforts to engage stakeholders. The program’s working group researches critical areas for improving overseas voting processes.

The Overseas Voting Initiative at CSG has developed a series of articles, reports and resources that may aid state leaders as they respond to questions and confusion related to overseas voting.

In 2019, CSG released a comprehensive report examining the sustainability of balloting solutions for military and overseas voting. The report discusses barriers to sustainable balloting technology and examines why current solutions for ensuring the successful return of ballots have not been as sustainable as intended. It also identifies obstacles that must be addressed in future research.

Overseas voters face several challenges when attempting to cast their votes. This article discusses how military and overseas voting ballots are counted. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission conducts the Elections Administration Voting Survey every two years to identify factors that influence successful vote submission. However, the survey does not sufficiently isolate factors in overseas voter experiences. In response, the working group issued a set of recommendations for streamlining and improving the survey. The working group recommended the development and implementation of a survey data standard that would identify and store transaction-level data on voter experiences — without identifying information.

  • This report provides more information about the recommendations for data standardization.
  • This article identifies the benefits of the data standard.
  • This article highlights the progress that specific states, particularly Colorado, have made in implementing this standard.

Ballot duplication is another area of concern. Ballot duplication is the process of replacing damaged or improperly marked ballots (i.e., the voting system cannot read the ballot) with a readable ballot that preserves voter intent, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

  • This article explains ballot duplication, how it is conducted and why it is important.
  • CSG has developed recommendations for duplication of damaged and/or machine unreadable ballots and frequently asked questions (and answers) on ballot duplication.
  • The Overseas Voting Initiative has developed recommendations on Common Access Cards, digital signature verification and responding to unreadable or damaged ballots.

CSG research has also addressed misinformation and disinformation. Access to accurate, unbiased information is crucial to preserving the integrity and security of any election. This CSG article on election safeguards provides an overview of measures that the U.S. has implemented to combat disinformation.

Finally, CSG has developed a position paper with recommendations on how to achieve a balance between security and ballot access in electronic ballot return.

How Do Emergency Responders Vote?

By Rachel Wright

When disaster strikes, first responders are on the front lines to protect vulnerable people and communities. But what happens if a disaster occurs close to an election? If emergency responders can’t vote in person, and if they’re unable to comply with traditional absentee voting deadlines and procedures, their ability to vote may be very limited.

Although many states have adopted general statutory provisions that facilitate voting among those who are experiencing a personal emergency, fewer have adopted provisions that specifically outline alternative voting procedures for emergency responders.

Currently, 11 states delineate alternative voting procedures for those who are called to work in response to an in-state or out-of-state emergency. Among these states, there is significant variation in the voting procedures afforded to emergency responders. These procedures can be broadly grouped as follows:

  • Extension of Uniformed and Overseas Citizen (UOCAVA) voting procedures
    • Extension of absentee ballot request period
    • General authority provided to the Secretary of State to take necessary measures to facilitate voting

Wyoming was the first state to adopt statutory provisions specifically delineating separate voting procedures for emergency responders. These measures were incorporated into statute in 1998. Virginia is the most recent state to adopt similar procedures, with legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2020. Currently, there is one bill in each house of the Minnesota legislature that would, if enacted, afford separate voting procedures to the state’s emergency responders.

Significant variation also exists in how states refer to and define emergency services workers in statute. Terms used range from “emergency services worker” in New Hampshire to “trained or certified emergency response providers” in Mississippi. Overall, few states provide explicit definitions of these terms and those that do refrain from listing specific qualifying professions as to not exclude those who may benefit from these provisions.

Statute often delineates which elected official has the authority to declare an emergency that permits alternative voting procedures for emergency responders to come into effect.

Most states recognize the authority of its Governor, any other state’s Governor, and the President. Three states don’t specify this authority while New York and Virginia recognize that of another “competent authority.”

Statutory Provisions – Date of Adoption

Apart from Wyoming, state adoption of legislation pertaining to voting by emergency responders has been a recent trend. In the mid-2000s, New Hampshire and California were among the first states to outline explicit procedures for emergency responders. The remaining eight states were soon to follow suit. Virginia is the most recent state to adopt such legislation, VA HB242, in in April 2020. Currently, there are two bills being considered in both Chambers of the Minnesota legislature, that if enacted would allow emergency responders to vote by absentee or UOCAVA ballot procedures. Figure 1: Date of Statute Adoption included below outlines the year in which each state adopted alternative voting procedures for emergency responders.

 Figure 1: Date of Statute Adoption

StateDate of Adoption
New Hampshire2006
California (in-state)2009
Alabama, California (out-of-state), Louisiana, Maine, and Oklahoma2013
New Mexico2015
New York2016

State Procedures for Voting by Emergency Responders

Extension of Uniformed and Overseas Citizen (UOCAVA) Voting Procedures

Four states — Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico and Virginia — extend uniformed and overseas citizen (UOCAVA) voting procedures to emergency responders. Of these states, Maine and Mississippi are the only to allow this group to utilize the Federal Post Card Application and Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot.

Extended Period for Ballot Request

Two states — New York and Oklahoma — permit an extended by-mail request period for emergency responders. For example, New York statute reads that an application or letter may be delivered to the Board of Elections “without regard to deadlines for the receipt of absentee ballot applications.”

California stands alone among the states in its provision of different procedures to emergency responders depending on whether they are called to work in response to an in-state or out-of-state emergency. Under California statute, personnel called in response to an out-of-state emergency are authorized to vote using a vote-by-mail ballot and to submit a request for this ballot even after the close of the application period specified for other by-mail voters.

General Authority Extended to the Secretary of State

Four states — Alabama, Louisiana, Wyoming and New Hampshire — delegate general authority to the Secretary of State to adopt the necessary procedures to facilitate voting among those called to work in response to an emergency. Potential measures include working closely with the state attorney general, local election officials and the United States Postal Service to ensure the timely transit and return of ballots.

Defining Qualifying Voters

Significant variation exists in state statute pertaining to the terminology used to define those covered by emergency responder provisions. Examples of terminology employed in the states include:

  • Emergency Services Worker (New Hampshire)
  • Trained or Certified Emergency Response Provider (Mississippi)
  • Emergency Responder (New York)

Four states — California, New Hampshire, New Mexico and New York — have provided definitions of those statutorily covered as emergency responders. Defining the term employed in statute provides clarity to who is exactly is covered. These definitions, however, refrain from specifying which professions are covered under statute, with the exception being New Hampshire.

New Hampshire statute does specify professions covered under emergency responder provisions (e.g., New Hampshire National Guard, utility workers, etc.). However, the statute provides authority to the Department of Safety to declare additional professions as emergency services workers. This serves to maintain clarity in the scope of the statute while not excluding those who are not traditionally considered emergency responders.

Declaring Authority

States differ in recognizing which elected official or officials have the authority to declare a state of emergency that allows for these alternative voting procedures to come into effect. In the states, a declaration of emergency is issued by the governor. At the national level, this authority rests with the president. The application of alternative voting procedures for emergency responders is often dependent upon the declaration of an emergency by one or a combination of these elected officials.

  • The majority of states analyzed recognize the authority of their state’s governor, any other state’s governor, and the president in declaring an emergency that permits the application of alternative voting procedures for those called to work in response.
  • Only three states — Louisiana, Oklahoma and Wyoming — fail to specify which public official has authority to permit the application of alternative voting procedures for emergency responders.
  • New York and Virginia are the only two states to recognize the authority of another “competent authority” to permit the application of these voting procedures.