Voting Shouldn't Be Harder Just Because Military Spouses Aren't 'in Foxholes'

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Then Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson
In this Jan. 6, 2016 photo, then Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, talks during an interview at her office in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/David Eggert)

Kate Marsh Lord is the communications director for Secure Families Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit aimed at mobilizing military spouses to vote and advocate on issues that impact their communities. A proud Air Force spouse and mother of three, she currently lives in South Carolina.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

On the surface, Michigan's new Uniformed Service Member Absentee Ballot Act is an important step, easing the state and local absentee voting process for military members. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes a slap in the face to military spouses and dependents.

That's because rather than extend the rule to make it easy for those family members who often also absentee vote, Michigan state Sen. Ruth Johnson objected to a measure to do so because those families aren't "in foxholes," she said.

This law is a stark reminder of a misunderstanding of the sacrifices of military families. Michigan is now the only state in the country to deliberately omit military spouses and their dependents from electronic signature eligibility during absentee voting.

The law, signed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week, allows eligible members of the military to use verified electronic signatures to submit their absentee ballot for state and local elections, beginning in 2024. The aim of the legislation is to securely ease the voting process for service members, who we know are 27% less likely to vote than their civilian counterparts.

When the bill was debated on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Adam Hollier, a combat veteran, proposed an amendment to the bill to extend equal inclusion for military spouses and eligible dependents.

"As you all know, and especially those who serve in the military understand, when you sign up like I did, it is not just you who serves in the military, but your entire family. I believe that we should include our entire family -- spouses and dependents -- in that protection when they are deployed overseas to ensure that they can cast their ballots on time and not miss the opportunity to vote," Hollier said in his statement to the state legislature.

But the bill's sponsor, Johnson, objected to Hollier's amendment to include spouses and family members.

"Spouses and dependents are not in foxholes, or on military ships, or in barracks. Again, I request a "no" vote on this amendment," she argued.

After her statement, the amendment to include spouses and dependents in the new rule was voted down and ultimately not included. The bill was signed into law this week.

Spouses and military dependents of voting age stationed overseas or away from the state in which they are registered to vote face the same voting obstacles as uniformed military members, something I know from personal experience.

I am the spouse of an active-duty airman who has served for 22 years, including a total of 10 years when our family was stationed overseas on accompanied tours. But during this entire time, my husband has never served in a foxhole or on a military ship or in a barracks. Johnson's interpretation of qualifying military service is outdated, disrespectful and completely detached from the reality of today's military service.

The state of Michigan's deliberate refusal to extend equal voting privileges to Michigan military families stationed overseas is an insult to all those who serve -- both active-duty troops and their dependents. MIlitary spouses and family members make untold and unrecognized sacrifices to support our loved ones in uniform.

Equal access to voting should not be one of them.

In fact, according to the Defense Department, 50% of active-duty service members are married and 92% of active-duty spouses are women. Omitting spouses from this legislation disproportionately cuts women out of the local electoral process.

The new Michigan does not prevent military spouses and overseas dependents from voting via other means. Our federal rights are protected by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. But the Michigan legislature took the disappointing step of intentionally excluding spouses from a bill that would make it easier for us because we're not in "foxholes."

Military spouses and dependents face enough barriers to voting that it is extremely disappointing to see lawmakers create an arbitrary roadblock.

If nothing else, watching the discourse and vote surrounding this legislation is a reminder that we must carefully research and vet every candidate and issue on our ballots. Every vote from local government to federal office can impact us. It's vital we overcome the challenges and barriers to voting and make our voices heard - whether we're voting in our home state or from a foxhole on the other side of the world.

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