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July 29, 2020 Feature

The Importance of the Nineteenth Amendment and the Right to Vote for Members of the Armed Forces

By Col. Linda Strite Murnane (Ret.)

When you raise your hand and swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same and to obey the orders of those appointed over you, you really want to have a voice in who “those appointed over you” might be.

As a nearly 30-year member of the U.S. military, and a woman, I came to appreciate in very real and concrete terms the value of the Nineteenth Amendment and am grateful for those who fought hard 100 years ago to allow me and other women in the U.S. armed forces to have a voice in our election process.

For nine years of my military service, I lived abroad, assigned to a foreign land at the direction of “those appointed over me.” During all of that time, I was separated by thousands of miles from my core family, my home, and the comforts of life as we know it in the United States. I was deployed multiple times to places that were sometimes dangerous and always unique.

While those conditions were things I freely undertook, and no one forced me to do that, I needed to know that decisions on our national security policy were being made consistently with a higher purpose in mind to decide on a daily basis whether to continue in those circumstances or to move on to a different line of work.

Many U.S. citizens are unaware of the ways in which the U.S. military has impacted elections in our nation.

As early as 1942, Congress recognized the need to ensure that the military had the right to vote would pose unique challenges. In June 1942, the House of Representatives considered legislation that was intended to provide that every man who was qualified to vote and displaced from his home due to military service was entitled to a war ballot. It placed the onus on each state’s secretary of state to print and supply soldiers with war ballots listing the candidates running for federal, state, and local offices.1 The bill faced fierce opposition for different reasons, including issues relating to state sovereignty. However, the bill was enacted in 1942, allowing for servicemembers to vote if they remained in the United States.2

Under that proposed legislation, the process to cast a vote required three steps. First, the Army was required to provide postcards to be mailed to the secretary of state for their home of residence. Second, the secretary of state was to mail a ballot. The ballot required an oath that had to be signed by the military member affirming residence status. Finally, the military member was to mail the ballot and oath to the secretary of state.3

The decision to modify the voting age to allow individuals who were 18 to vote, for example, came about in part due to the national policy related to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. March 23, 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed, and it was ratified on July 1, 1971, the swiftest ratification of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in history. That amendment modified the voting age in the United States to 18, which matched the age of conscription under the military draft then in force in the Unites States.4

In the article “Citizen Soldiers and the Foundational Fusion of Masculinity, Citizenship, and Military Service,”5 the authors point out the uniquely masculine presence of military members in the early history of our nation. As the authors note, “Military service in the early republic thus allowed men to become citizens and boys to become men.”6

This presented a separate but related hurdle for women who sought the right to vote, but also who faced obstacles to serving as members of militia and military forces.7 The authors note, “While the founding model abandoned English monarchies and professional armies, it left untouched men’s governance over women in the home. Reflecting the republican government tradition in the home, men bore the privileges of governance and the responsibilities of it.”8

The authors describe the strategy that brought women in the military as well as the right to vote into a single movement. “Suffragists ultimately won the vote by successfully leveraging their loyalty and military service within the foundational fusion and prevailing masculinities of the time.”9

What does it look like to vote in the military? I actually think the first time I visited a “polling place” was probably when I was in my mid-30s. I happened to be stationed in Ohio, my “home of record,” that year. Prior to that three-year assignment, and for 27 of the other years, I lived away from Ohio, and voting looked like this:

Fill out the absentee ballot postcard request. Wait for the ballot to come in the mail. Fill it out, sign the internal envelope flap, and put the envelope inside another envelope. And then you wondered if the envelope got there, and if the ballot would be counted.

Today, many of us can’t recall a time when absentee voting using the postcard system was not available. However, it was Public Law No. 99-410, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), enacted by Congress on August 28, 1986, that called for registration and voting by absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters in elections for federal office.10 By Executive Order, then President Ronald Reagan designated the secretary of defense as the head of the executive department with the primary responsibility for federal functions to ensure the right of deployed servicemembers and those serving abroad to have access to their right to vote.11

UOCAVA required states and territories to allow citizens to register and vote absentee in elections. This legislation extends the assurance of using absentee voting opportunities to members of the U.S. military, the merchant marine, and their accompanying family members, as well as to other U.S. citizens who reside outside of the United States.

The act created the now-familiar “Federal Post Card” application that can be used by those who are authorized to vote absentee under the act to both register to vote and request their absentee ballot at the same time.

In 2009, as a component of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, the UOCAVA was amended under legislation titled the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, or the “MOVE Act,” which established absentee ballot procedures binding on all states in all federal elections.

The challenges of voting that tie to military service are not exclusive to those who wear the uniform either. Military members are often accompanied by their family members when they serve abroad. The same or similar challenges are faced by those who are eligible to vote in the United States but who find themselves accompanying their spouse in another country. It is made even more complex when those family members accompany their military family member on an assignment within the United States. For some of those family members, in order to be gainfully employed in the local state’s economy, they are required to pay state taxes in that state and sometimes required to obtain a driver’s license in that state. While the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) ensures that mere presence in a state due to military orders does not result in that servicemember’s domicile being changed, sometimes the ability to cast a vote in the state of domicile is impacted by the practical need to meet employment qualifications, particularly for accompanying family members.12 The Military Spouses Residency Relief Act (MSRRA)13 amended the SCRA in 2009. It granted a substantial benefit to military spouses who were legal residents of, or domiciled in, the same state as the servicemember. For those spouses, the MSRRA prevented state and local entities from gaining tax jurisdiction over the spouse if the spouse’s presence in the state was due solely to accompanying the servicemember at the member’s duty station. If the MSRRA applied, the spouse’s personal property and wages would be sourced to the spouse’s state of legal residence or domicile.14

A separate challenge arose when the mail system upon which you might rely was not as reliable as the mail system within the United States. For many servicemembers, the delivery of those absentee ballots is handled through a military postal system that may be slow depending on the availability of space for mail on other aircraft and delivery means. Not every servicemember serving abroad, however, has access to a U.S.-controlled mail system, and in those instances delivery of the absentee ballot in time for their vote to count may be less certain.

When controversial decisions were made about where the United States might engage in conflicts, the decisions on Election Day were the most serious. But day to day, one challenge, particularly in the days before 24-hour news stations and the internet, when one was deployed was how to get enough information about the candidates in your local elections to make an informed decision. You don’t get to watch debates among the candidates from Ohio for a congressional election while in Japan. In fact, when living in Japan, and in a Japanese community, we basically got four hours of U.S. English news per day in the early morning and late evening, and everything else was delivered, as you might expect, in Japanese.

When you were deployed to an area of combat, you didn’t always have the luxury of time to watch the news that might be available.

In today’s environment, it is worth reflecting on how many U.S. servicemen and servicewomen were deployed to support World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, and to ask what efforts those servicemen and servicewomen took to try to learn enough about the issues to make informed decisions about “those appointed over them.” It is worth reflecting even more about whether their votes were ever counted.

In particular, one election cycle remains forever embedded in my memory. It was a year of a hotly contested national election, and an incumbent president who was particularly unpopular among many members of the armed forces was seeking reelection. As usual, I completed my postcard and asked for an absentee ballot, as I had each and every year that I was in the military and residing outside of my home state. And then, as usual, I waited for the ballot to come. And it never did.

In a type of voter suppression that got some coverage in the press but about which no one seemed to care so much, thousands of members of the U.S. military were denied the opportunity to vote because the mechanisms that were in place to ensure the right to vote were used to avoid counting the votes of those on the front lines of U.S. national defense.

Citing “election security,” certain groups and organizations attempted to put up even greater barriers to counting the ballots of deployed military members by seeking to restrict ballots returned in any manner other than by mail or in-person delivery.

This issue of military voter suppression is not party specific—it has been a bipartisan challenge to the hard-fought right of our members of the armed forces to have a say in the right to vote. There have been allegations from both parties of manipulation of the access to ballots and the methods of lawful return for the votes to be counted from all parties in our elections over many years.

While those who fought for the right for women to vote may not have had today’s environment in mind, the fact that the women’s suffrage movement occurred was critical—to men and to women and to our national defense. Today, perhaps more than ever, when so few of “those appointed over us” have any experience at all in serving in our nation’s defense, it is vital to both the men and the women in the military to ensure that they exercise their right to vote, and that their right to do so be defended.


1. Molly Guptill Manning, Fighting to Lose the Vote: How the Solider Voting Acts of 1942 and 1944 Disenfranchised America’s Armed Forces, 19 Legis. & Pub. Pol’y 335 (2016),

2. Soldier Voting Act of 1942, Pub. L. No. 77-712, 56 Stat. 753 (amended 1944).

3. Manning, supra note 1.

4. Id.

. Jamie R. Abrams & Nickole Durbin, Citizen Soldiers and the Foundational Fusion of Masculinity, Citizenship, and Military Service, 11 ConLaw NOW 75 (2020).

6. Id. at 76–77.

7. For a complete discussion of the impediments to military service that women faced, see Linda Strite Murnane, Legal Impediments to Service: Women in the Military and the Rule of Law, 14 Duke L.J. Gender L. & Pol’y 1061 (May 2007).

8. Id.

9. Id.

10. Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, Pub. L. No. 99-410, 100 Stat. 924 (Aug. 28, 1986), as amended through Pub. L. No. 111-84, 123 Stat. 2190, enacted Oct. 28, 2009.

11. Executive Order 12642, 53 Fed. Reg. 21,975 (June 10, 1988); 3 C.F.R. 1988 Comp. p. 575.

12. Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C. § 3901, et seq.

13. Military Spouses Residency Relief Act (MSRRA), Pub. L. No. 111-97, 123 Stat. 3007 (Nov. 11, 2009).

14. Id.

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By Col. Linda Strite Murnane (Ret.)

Colonel Linda Strite Murnane (Ret.) served 29.5 years on active duty with the United States Air Force. Following her military career, she worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. She is a past chair of the Judicial Division and has received both the ABA Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award and the ABA Section of International Law’s Mayre Rasmussen Award. She can be reached at [email protected].