Rebecca Alwine
Image via Rebecca Alwine / graphic treatment by Denzel Boyd for COURIER

Every year I undertake a convoluted process to ensure I can cast an absentee ballot. Over the last 16 years, I’ve voted by mail 16 times.

During the last presidential election, the average in-person voter spent 19 minutes waiting in line and at the polls. For the almost 1 million military service members and dependents who vote by mail, the process is longer—and much more complicated. 

I haven’t lived in Virginia for 15 years, but every year I have to verify I’m still registered to vote there. Sometimes this means making phone calls and updating mailing addresses. Last year I had to call to make sure I was registered in the right county, which was a hassle to prove since my driver’s license is from another state. 

At the time, my sister asked me why I didn’t just vote where I currently live. I could change my voter registration to Georgia—or any other state I’ve lived in—but I don’t have to. As a military spouse I can keep my residency in Virginia due to the Military Spouse Residency and Relief Act. Most of us don’t change our state of residency each time we move because it’s a whole drawn-out process. Changing our residency means getting a new license, filing state taxes in more than one state; it can also mean we don’t qualify for exemptions for vehicle registrations or other fees when we move. It’s simply easier to keep the same state of residency as my spouse.

After ensuring I’m still registered, my next step is to request an absentee ballot. This involves making sure I have both printer paper and ink, folding the paper just so, and mailing the application off before the deadline. I have to do this every year. When my ballot arrives, I fill it out, sign it, and make sure I return it on time.

Beyond the logistics of requesting and filling out my absentee ballot, I also have to be up to date on local and state issues in a place I don’t live—which means more time spent researching candidates.

RELATED: Answered: Your Most Frequent Questions About Absentee Ballots

But every year I undertake this process because voting is my right and responsibility. Over the last 16 years, I’ve voted by mail 16 times.

In my first presidential election back in 2004, I voted by mail because I was in college. All my friends and I mailed in our ballots, and weeks later, stayed up too late watching the returns on television.

Four years later, my life was drastically different. I was a new mother, my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, and we were stationed in Germany. Again, my friends and I all voted by mail.

The military community doesn’t vote as one block. We are not all conservatives, we are not all Christians, and we do not all agree on the decisions our current leaders make regarding the US military. But we are (mostly) in agreement that our children need quality education, our families need safe houses to live in, and our service members need support.

We did the same thing in 2012 and 2016—this time with the “supervision” of our children who were just starting to understand what voting meant. By the time I was their age, I had accompanied my dad to the voting booth several times. In those days, you pushed a button or a lever. Later, I watched him fill out a bubble answer sheet like the ones we used on standardized tests in school.

But now, I have no idea what the experience of going to a polling place looks like. As a white woman, I’ve never been questioned about my right to vote or my identity. I’ve never volunteered at the polls because, as a military spouse, I live in a state where I’m not registered to vote. I’ve never waited in line to vote, or missed work or school to do it. And, I’ve never gotten an “I voted” sticker.

I don’t just vote in presidential elections either—I vote in all of them. During my first few years as a military spouse, I struggled with weighing in on local issues, such as county law changes or fire department budgets. Though I’d lived in Virginia for years, the county I was registered to vote in was my husband’s hometown—I’ve never lived there, so why would I vote on those hyperlocal topics?

But then I realized that by not voting in Virginia’s local elections, I had even less of a voice than I thought. Northern Virginia, and the area where I am registered to vote, has a high military population, and many of them can’t cast ballots in their counties because they’re not registered. So my vote is for military families—the ones who have to live with local government decisions they don’t have a say in.

Just as I am voting for things happening in Virginia, there are people voting by mail who are registered where I live now. And, hopefully, there’s a military spouse voting for the issues I can’t weigh in on but still affect my military family. Whether we agree on the decisions or not, they are making their voice heard.

The military community doesn’t vote as one block. We are not all conservatives, we are not all Christians, and we do not all agree on the decisions our current leaders make regarding the US military. But we are (mostly) in agreement that our children need quality education, our families need safe houses to live in, and our service members need support. So while I may vote one way and someone else another way, we often have each other’s best interests at heart. 

RELATED: Answered: Your Most Frequent Questions About Voting by Mail

Voting by mail is not easy. It is not something that can be easily manipulated or duplicated. There are hoops to jump through, deadlines to adhere to, and no wiggle room. If you miss the date to request your ballot, you don’t get to vote. You have to apply for a ballot every year. It takes time, effort, and dedication to vote by mail.

I’ve voted by mail since that first presidential election I was eligible for in 2004. I’ve voted every year since—that’s 16 years of voting by mail. It’s something I’ve been committed to longer than my marriage, my children, my career. And if I have to vote by mail for every election to come, I will.

READ MORE: Answered: How to Make Sure Your Mail-In Ballot Is Counted