As of Tuesday, more than 66 million votes have been cast in the 2020 general election. And thanks to the work of voting assistance officers across U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, new soldiers currently at basic combat training are having their absentee ballots counted too.
According to TRADOC estimates, more than 15,000 trainees are currently going through Army basic combat training at four installations –– Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Many of these new soldiers are eligible to vote in their first-ever presidential election this year, and all who opt to vote will do so via mail-in absentee ballots.
Military Times spoke with two voting assistance officers — the VAO for the 120th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception) at Fort Jackson, and the senior VAO for Fort Benning — about their work to ensure that the Army’s newest soldiers have the chance to cast their ballots in a historic election.
Voting assistance officers are appointed at every echelon of command from company- to installation-level. According to Army regulations, they are responsible for ensuring all soldiers have access to the absentee voter application form and facilitating their timely completion during election cycles.
The installation VAOs primarily support unit VAOs with training and administrative support when necessary, said Abigail Glover, the Fort Benning installation VAO. The Army VAO program is part of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which is currently reporting an increased turnout of military absentee voters this election.
Glover said she makes sure unit VAOs are current with their training so that all units have a trained VAO available to help trainees exercise their right to vote.
When new trainees arrive at Fort Benning for their initial military training, company VAOs brief them on their right to absentee vote and how to request an absentee ballot using a Federal Postcard Application, Glover said.
The reception battalion —responsible for receiving and in-processing basic training soldiers at Fort Jackson — plays a critical role in the voting program, said Army 1st Lt. Chavonda Andrews, voting assistance officer for the 120th Adjutant General Battalion.
At Fort Jackson, newly-arrived trainees receive a voting briefing led by Andrews during their whirlwind reception at the 120th Adjutant General Battalion. Before the COVID-19 pandemic created additional testing and quarantine protocols, trainees spent an average of four days at the reception battalion before moving to their training unit. Andrews explained that the voting rights briefing occurs just before the new soldiers go to their respective training battalions.
During the briefing, Andrews walks trainees through the absentee voter application form and provides them information and literature on deadlines and voting procedures. She also creates an internal roster of soldiers interested in voting, so that VAOs assigned to the training units can proactively follow-up with trainees who may want to learn more after the briefing.
According to Andrews, the trainees mail their ballot applications in coordination with their training unit VAOs. After their ballots arrive and are distributed by their drill sergeants at mail call, the new soldiers fill them out and include them with the unit’s outgoing mail. Trainees are permitted to contact their VAOs if they have any questions regarding their ballots, explained Andrews.
The only information the VAOs can’t provide, Andrews said, is about specific candidates.
“As far as information about candidates, [trainees are voting based on] what they’ve already heard — that’s all we can go with,” said Andrews.
Since trainees don’t have access to the internet for much of basic training, this means that some current BCT soldiers may not have consumed any news since late August.
Regardless, Andrews and other VAOs are passionate about helping new soldiers cast their ballots.
“We’re doing our best to make sure trainees have what they need to vote,” said Andrews.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.