Military Spouses Need More Voting Information to Increase Participation and Confidence

September 24, 2018

Monday was the start of Absentee Voting week, a voting emphasis week for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the Department of Defense entity helping uniformed service members, their eligible family members, and overseas voters exercise their right to vote. The week is focused on reminding these voters to pay close attention to their ballot return deadlines.

This week can also serve as a reminder for this unique group of voters to register and request an absentee ballot if they have not already done so, as many of the earliest state/territory registration or request deadlines for the November General Election are this week. For example, Alaska, Arkansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and the Virgin Islands all have important deadlines on October 7th.

For this group, especially for those living outside of the country, organic cues – like campaign fliers, billboards, or local news coverage of an election – to start the absentee process are often missing. And though there are efforts to get key dates, deadlines, and materials into the heads and hands of this community, there are some troubling early findings released last week by the Military Officers Association of America’s (MOAA) Military Family Initiative, a Democracy Fund grantee.

It seems that military spouses may have a larger informational deficit than those directly serving in the military. For example, according to initial findings, which are part of the MOAA MFI survey conducted in partnership with Syracuse University’s Institute for Military and Veteran Families, only 40% of active duty military spouses felt it was easy to obtain voting information. Only 39% considered themselves knowledgeable (i.e. rated their knowledge as good or excellent) about the use of the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), which is the most critical election form for the military voter community. This is compared to 56% of active duty members who felt they were knowledgeable. We’ve written about the FPCA before on the Democracy Fund blog, this form allows them to designate as military voters, affording them specific protections under federal law, and acts an absentee ballot request.

Additionally, only 41% of active duty spouse respondents consider themselves knowledgeable about key absentee ballot deadlines as compared to 52% of active duty. The survey findings paint a picture where “awareness and understanding of the absentee voting process is associated with the likelihood of voting.” This is telling, because it is a driver of turnout. Only 36% of active duty military spouses shared that they voted in every election, as compared to 57% of active duty members. Spouses’ top reasons for not voting were:

  • They did not want to vote;
  • They did not think their vote mattered; and
  • Did not know how to get an absentee ballot.

The last two reasons should give us pause. We can and must help this community overcome their informational and confidence hurdles. While the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) has experimented in the past with military spouse outreach, more must be done to equip these men and women with resources. Additionally we should look for new ways to address some of the potential attitudinal challenges. This is an area where Democracy Fund and MOAA MFI will continue to look for opportunities. In the short-term, we encourage a diverse group of stakeholders: military spousal groups, associations, and peer networks to consider urgently sharing relevant absentee voting information with this audience. One option is to share MOAA MFI’s absentee voting guide powered and populated with information from FVAP. MOAA’s incredible name recognition in this community provides an added layer of trust if constituents aren’t familiar with the FVAP brand, and over time it is a way to help them become familiar.

While the purpose of Absentee Voting week is to encourage these voters to return their ballots as soon as possible, there are likely too many who haven’t even started their absentee voting journey. There might still be time for them to catch-up this election season, but we must look to make larger scale systems changes in the future so no one, especially the military spouse, is left behind.

Prior to joining the Democracy Fund, Stacey Scholl worked for the Federal Voting Assistance Program as a program analyst and also has experience working in two state election offices—Colorado and Iowa. Both her father and mother served in the United States Air Force.