Military Families: Perceptions, Challenges, and Barriers to Voting Participation and Absentee Voting


The Full Technical Report is Also Available to Download​

Highlights of Full Report:

  • 200+ pages of further findings and analysis from active duty and active duty spouses
  • Findings and analysis of veteran and veteran spouses on the issue of absentee voting
  • Further recommendations on absentee voting and the military community

Overview

Active duty service members, along with their family members, rely on absentee voting to cast their vote for elections at all levels of government while overseas, deployed, or while stationed in states other than where they are registered. While there is some research surrounding the logistics of absentee voting, not enough is known about the experiences of active duty military and their families with absentee voting.

Through a grant from the Democracy Fund, the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) partnered to gather information from military family members about their perceptions, challenges and barriers associated with voting and absentee voting as active duty military members. The objective of this research effort was to gather more information on the motivations, challenges, and perceptions surrounding absentee voting among active duty military and spouses. Literature surrounding this topic gives important insights that drive policy and future research. Existing research shows that members of the military and their families often encounter barriers such as frequent moves, duty stations in remote locations, and general inconvenience that makes it especially difficult to vote. However, more research is needed specifically around active duty spouse and family absentee voting.

Method

Based on the literature review and analysis of existing data, the research team designed a survey instrument aimed at better understanding absentee voting for those in the military, past and present. The survey was disseminated from March 20, 2018 through July 31, 2018 using Qualtrics, marketed on several social media platforms, and circulated via email to listserves of active duty military and veterans. Close to 2,900 responded to the Military Families Voting Survey (40% from veterans, 30% from spouses of active duty service members, and 16% from active duty service members). The findings reported here are from active duty service members and active duty spouses who participated in the survey.

Results

Voting, Motivation, and Process

  • Approximately 71% of active duty and 69% of active duty spouse respondents believe voting is a civic duty.
  • About 57% Active Duty Respondents vote in every election (federal, state, and local).
  • Only 36% of Active Duty Spouse Respondents vote in every election (most spouses vote in presidential, elections, but not necessarily in state or local elections). 
  • About 67% of active duty respondents were confident their ballot was counted and indicated it was easy to get voting assistance on or near their installation. A similar percentage of active duty spouse respondents were confident their ballot was counted, but only 40% felt it was easy to obtain voting information.
  • Nearly 85% of all military family respondents did not use voter registration drives to obtain voting information.

The top three reasons why active duty respondents did not vote in the presidential election were:

  1. They did not want to vote
  2. They had no candidate preference
  3. They were not interested in voting.

The top three reasons why active duty spouse respondents did not vote in the presidential election were:

  1. They did not want to vote
  2. They did not think their vote mattered
  3. They did not know how to get an absentee ballot.

Active Duty Service Member Respondents

Active Duty Spouse Respondents

Presidential: 95%

Presidential: 89%

Congressional: 87%

Congressional: 72%

State: 78%

State: 62%

Local: 71%

Local: 52%

Primaries and Caucuses: 50%

Primaries and Caucuses: 49%

Military Influence

Foreign Interference

  • Of those who participated in the survey, 70% of active duty members felt they were encouraged to vote, while only 27% of their spouses felt encouraged to vote, and 54% of spouses felt they were neither encouraged nor discouraged.
  • A large majority of both active duty respondents and their spouses felt military leaders neither influenced their likelihood of voting nor who to vote for.

icon of a hand checking a box.

  • Views are mixed on the likelihood of foreign intervention in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Just over 48% of active duty and 42% of active duty spouse respondents expressed belief that there was foreign intervention, compared to approximately 21% of active duty and 24% of active duty spouse respondents who did not believe there was intervention. Just over 24% of active duty and 27% of active duty spouse respondents neither agree nor disagree there was foreign intervention in the 2016 presidential election.
  • A majority indicated foreign interference would not affect their likelihood of voting. Of those who felt there was interference, 58% of active duty respondents said it did not change their confidence in the voting system. However, 63% of active duty spouse respondents had less confidence in the absentee voting process as a result of the intervention.

Absentee Ballot

  • A majority of military families expressed satisfaction with the overall absentee ballot process (74% of active duty and 66% of active duty spouse respondents).
  • Over 72% of active duty and spouse respondents required an absentee ballot because they were not registered to vote in the same place they resided.
  • A majority of active duty members (86%) and their spouses (90%) who participated in the survey use the U.S. mail to submit their absentee ballots.
83%

Over 83% of active duty and 73% of active duty spouse respondents stated they would need an absentee ballot “almost every time” or “every time” to vote in every election (federal, state, local) during their time in the military.

73%

Over 92% of active duty service member respondents felt they received their absentee ballot with enough time to return it before the election. However:

  • 70% did not receive notification their vote was counted
  • 71% did not check the status of their ballot
  • 65% were unaware they could check the status of their ballot.

Over 87% of active duty spouse respondents felt they received their absentee ballot in enough time to return it before the election. However:

  • 71% did not receive notification their vote was counted
  • 68% did not check the status of their ballot
  • 69% did not know they could check the status of their ballot.
  • Most military family voters who participated in the survey report they are knowledgeable about registering to vote, requesting an absentee ballot, receiving an absentee ballot, completing an absentee ballot, and returning an absentee ballot.
    • Only 56% of active duty and 39% of active duty spouse respondents consider themselves knowledgeable about how to use a Federal Post Card Application to register and request an absentee ballot (i.e., rate their knowledge as “good” or “excellent”).
    • Only 43% of active duty and 27% of active duty spouse respondents consider themselves knowledgeable about how to use a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot FWAB (i.e., rate their knowledge as “good” or “excellent”). About 40% of active duty and 44% of active duty spouse respondents consider themselves not knowledgeable about how to use the FWAB (i.e., rate their knowledge as “fair” or “poor”).
    • Only 52% of active duty and 41% of active duty spouse respondents consider themselves knowledgeable about knowing key absentee ballot deadlines (i.e., rate their knowledge as “good” or “excellent”). About 27% of active duty and 37% of active duty spouse respondents consider themselves not knowledgeable about knowing key absentee ballot deadlines (i.e., rate their knowledge as “fair” or “poor”).
  • Among the responses, awareness and understanding of the absentee voting process is associated with the likelihood of voting. This lends support to the need for active duty military family registration and voting outreach program.
  • The majority of active duty members and their spouses who participated in the survey did not encounter problems with the absentee voting process while overseas, while deployed, or during a move.
  • When asked about most important aspects when using absentee ballot in future elections, 76% of active duty and 76% of active duty spouse respondents indicated that a method that is most convenient is the most important aspect. This is followed by 51% of active duty and 49% of active duty spouse respondents who indicated that method that cannot be changed/tampered with/removed is most important.
  • When asked about the preference in submitting absentee or remote ballot, 57% of active duty and 56% of active duty spouse respondents indicated a preference to return electronically online (e.g., via email or via website) followed by 39% of active duty and 36% of active duty spouse respondents who indicated a preference to return by mail.

Recommendations

The study findings can be used to inform efforts at all levels of government involved with improving military absentee voting. Additionally, findings will (1) inform the public about the experiences, motivations, and perceptions of active duty military and their families and (2) shape policy and practice around the issues facing military-connected voters. Based on results, we make the following recommendations.

 

Education and Awareness

  • Focus educational messaging around:
    • The topic of “your vote counting” (e.g., encourage military voters to participate by providing explicit information about how their votes are counted).
    • Important dates or events that remind service members and their families to vote (explore the use of technology such as apps to send reminders)
    • How military members and their families can update their voter registration, insuring that it is accurate and up-to-date.
    • How to check ballot status
  • Include and prioritize military families in all voting literature and outreach efforts with information that allows and encourages both the service member and military family member to cast votes
  • Execute a broad outreach strategy that relies on multiple channels of communication instead of military community specific outreach
  • Target groups who have traditionally been less likely to participate in elections such as younger, enlisted, and unmarried service members; in addition outreach efforts should target active duty spouses

Procedures:

  • Streamline information for registration process for voters who have relocated
  • Improve ballot receipt notification
  • Undertake minor but high impact procedural initiatives to incentivize voting
  • Examine the feasibility of voting online for active duty families; active duty families indicate a desire for an online voting option

Policy:

  • States and local election offices should routinely monitor the effects policies have on their military voters, using data to determine if they are disproportionately affected (e.g., how do proof-of-address requirements impact military voters?)
  • Explore the impact of voter registration maintenance on military voters