I remember the first time I voted. Sitting in my college dorm room, I marked the checkbox for the presidential race on my absentee ballot, then stared quizzically at all the ballot initiatives and judicial races on the backside. My nineteen year-old self did not fully appreciate the privilege and consequences of direct access to decision making.

Ever since my spouse enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, though, voting has taken on a new meaning. Voting has helped us stay connected to home, even when we’re stationed far away. For my service member, it’s one of the only ways he gets to express his partisan viewpoint, and for both of us, it’s such a novelty to actually impact the decisions that govern the trajectory of our military lives. Most fundamentally: voting is one of the core democratic rights that military families like ours serve and sacrifice in order to protect. Getting to participate in that right is like gratification for a job well done. 

Unfortunately, there are challenges to casting a ballot that prevent veteran and military families from reaching 100% voter participation. For Active Duty Military that move around a lot, it’s determining which of your many addresses is your voting residence, and what on earth is this “FPCA?” For Reservists and National Guard in addition, it’s figuring out how to vote “back home” even if the military deploys you half a world away. This year, that will include over 19,000 National Guardsmen currently deployed as part of COVID-19 response. For transitioning veterans, it’s switching from the “UOCAVA” system to the civilian world. For us family members along for the ride, it’s all of the same challenges as our service members, but sometimes with even less access to resources and support to navigate them. 

And of course, these challenges are only amplified for members of the military family who also belong to other historically-disenfranchised communities. Intersectionality can compound disadvantages.

When I launched the Secure Families Initiative in January, voting accessibility for military families was a priority. Our team quickly learned that more can be accomplished in tandem with others than by going it alone. So back in May, we started reaching out to other military support and advocacy organizations doing fantastic work to support this community, including the Modern Military Association of America (MMAA). To our delight, 16 organizations so far have agreed: these are challenges worth tackling, and tackling them together is the best strategy.

On September 1, we officially launched the Military Vote Coalition. Our collective mission is to encourage every veteran and military family to vote. (It should go without saying that the work this coalition does is strictly nonpartisan. Regardless of who or how members of our community vote, that each gets the opportunity to do so is what’s of chief importance.)

Our coalition has two working groups: Advocacy and Outreach. For Advocacy, we support policies that make the ballot box as accessible to our community as possible. This means holding the line on progress that’s already been made by monitoring compliance, as well as pushing for continual improvement. 

Here’s an example. Did you know that federal law requires election offices to send absentee military voters their ballots 45 days before a federal election? Neither did I until recently! This gives voters maximal time to return their ballots before state deadlines. Due to COVID-19’s impact on postal mail delivery delays, this timeline will be super important for the 2020 Presidential Election. So our coalition is working to make sure election offices know and comply with this deadline. 

But the system is only as accessible as the individuals trying to access it. Voter participation also requires Outreach. Among our coalition partners, we represent hundreds of thousands of veteran and military family members. Leveraging our collective reach is how we make sure everyone has the information they need to make their ballots count. 

Personally, I cannot wait to cast my ballot this fall. There are so many candidates I’m excited about, and issues that are on the line. I just triple-checked that my absentee ballot has been requested. I even signed up to be a poll worker if needed.

What about you — are you ready to vote?

Check out the Military Vote Coalition’s landing page: www.MilitaryVoteCoalition.org 

If you’re a civics nerd who enjoys regular updates about how to get yourself and those you love to vote, follow Secure Families Initiative on social media. We’re @SecureFamilies on Facebook, and @Secure_Families on Instagram and Twitter.

Sarah Streyder is the Founder of the Secure Families Initiative and a proud Air Force spouse. She is an advocate for principled foreign policy, and passionate about elevating military spouse voices. Sarah encourages everyone she meets to get involved, organize, and vote. 

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Modern Military Magazine. You can find the article here.