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
Wyoming1998
New Hampshire2006
California (in-state)2009
Alabama, California (out-of-state), Louisiana, Maine, and Oklahoma2013
Mississippi2014
New Mexico2015
New York2016
Virginia2020
MinnesotaPending

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.