A new survey shows military spouses of active-duty troops are significantly less likely to participate in elections than their service members, possibly because they receive limited absentee voting outreach and education, experts said.
The survey, conducted by the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) with Syracuse University and the Democracy Fund, polled about 3,000 troops, veterans and their families.
Among other questions, researchers asked how likely both troops and their spouses were to vote in presidential, congressional, state, local and primary elections.
In almost all categories, military spouses were significantly less likely to vote than service members. For example, 95 percent of active-duty troops said they are likely to vote in a presidential election, while 89 percent of spouses said the same. About 71 percent of troops said they are likely to vote in local elections, while about 52 percent of spouses said they would vote then.
Only in primary elections were spouses and troops close to the same rate. For those elections, 50 percent of troops said they would likely vote, while 49 percent of spouses reported the same.
That discrepancy, said retired Air Force Col. Mike Turner, MOAA's vice president of development, could be due to a lack of voter education for spouses.
"We believe we need a greater outreach effort to military spouses to inform them about the process and encourage them to vote," he said.
Active-duty troops, he said, receive help with voting registration and the absentee ballot process from base officials or their chain of command. But military spouses don't have that kind of support and outreach directed at them. Instead, they are left to figure the system out on their own, and may not vote because they don't understand the absentee system or in which state they should be registered.
However, the levels of likely voters among both spouses and troops who do receive support are much higher than his team expected, Turner said.
"The good news is military families really believe it's a civic duty to vote and, by and large, they vote very frequently," he said.
Voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election sat at about 61 percent, far below the percentage of spouses and troops who said they plan to vote in those races. And for local races where turnout is notoriously low -- around 20 percent nationwide in 2011, for example -- over 70 percent of active-duty military members said they intend to turn in a ballot in the next election.
In the long term, Turner said officials should address the spouse voting problem by increasing education outreach. "Anything that we can do that leads to greater enfranchisement of active-duty family population is good," he said.
For now, MOAA has changed how it is targeting its messaging around voting in the midterm elections to focus on the spouse population.
"We're adjusting our outreach efforts this year, and seeing what kind of results we get," Turner said.
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.