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For Many Military Personnel, Voting By Mail Is Not Unusual


We're going to focus now on how military personnel are going to vote this year. We actually know the how. They've been voting by mail since the Civil War, and it's always gone pretty smoothly. But which candidate are they voting for this year? Steve Walsh with member station KPBS in San Diego has been asking.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: In the year when millions of people are expected to vote by mail, overseas troops are among the first to receive their ballots. Federal law requires that they go out at least 45 days before the election. San Diego County Registrar of Voters' Michael Vu gives a tour of where the ballots will be tallied.

MICHAEL VU: This is our tabulation room right here. All the mail ballots will be processed and scanned in there.

WALSH: San Diego County is one of 11 counties in the U.S. to have over 10,000 military and overseas voters. Vu says there has never been a hint of widespread fraud, though not every ballot comes back in time to be counted. Federal law does make it easier for these voters to vote absentee. Overseas military voters are the only California voters who can return their ballots by fax, even though that isn't always an option.

VU: In many cases, we don't know what the status of that military and overseas voter is. Could they be, potentially, on a ship that doesn't necessarily have a good transmission when it comes down to fax?

WALSH: Still, most use the mail, which is why the law requires their ballots to go out early. In this election, military voters may be more in play than in previous elections. A recent Military Times poll actually showed Joe Biden with a lead among active duty troops. President Trump's approval ratings had declined. Ed Yokley (ph) is with Morning Consult, which tracks military and veteran households.

ELI YOKLEY: Military families are not unlike the rest of the electorate. I mean, we're seeing Joe Biden do better with older folks and with white folks and with men across the board.

WALSH: This group has typically been a reliable part of the Republican base. In some ways, it still is. Morning Consult polled veteran and active duty households after a bombshell article in The Atlantic reported that the president had called people who served losers and suckers, comments the White House denies. The poll showed those comments didn't dent support for the president.

YOKLEY: I think we've seen with white voters and with men, who are sort of the Trump base, not a whole lot has moved their views across the board over the last four years.

WALSH: With an eye toward shoring up support, Trump recently tweeted a video message to military voters. This was hours after returning from Walter Reed Medical Center for COVID-19 treatment.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We got everybody pay increases - three of them. There's - never seen anything like what I've done for the military.

WALSH: For most candidates, it's hard to target military voters directly. Even without a pandemic, regulations make it difficult to hold events on base. Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine, ran for Congress in 2016 and 2018. The district includes the sprawling Camp Pendleton in Southern California where more than 36,000 people live.

DOUG APPLEGATE: I wouldn't go on base. I would ask that on occasion. And I thought that that regulation was well-founded because I don't think that the military needs to be sucked into politics.

WALSH: Military voters may not even vote where they're based. They may be registered to vote elsewhere. This makes it even harder to target them, says Applegate, who didn't win a seat in Congress in two tries. He says military voters tend to be conservative, but not always. And even though they may be insulated from the job market...

APPLEGATE: I think they look at the economy just like everybody else - is it good? - because active duty military still buy homes. They still live in the community where they're stationed at.

WALSH: Applegate says national security is also important to military voters. They tend to size up who they think will do the best job of being their commander in chief.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this piece, it is incorrectly stated that overseas military voters are the only California voters who can return their ballot by fax. All overseas California voters can vote by fax.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SURFER BLOOD SONG, "ANCHORAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.