11/06/2012 09:14 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Important: Why Veterans Must Vote

Today, Americans will head to the polls to select a President, 474 Congressional representatives, and a myriad of local officials. Like all elections, this one will have a significant impact on issues that effect veterans and military families.

Polls show a tight race for the White House. Thus, votes from veterans -- especially in swing states -- could prove crucial.

The candidates have had opportunities to show their position on veterans' issues. And veterans have had a chance to tell the candidates what matters most to them. But do the candidates truly understand the dynamics of this slice of the electorate? Do they comprehend the weight that these voters could carry?

Think about this: About one in 10 -- more than 22 million -- adult Americans have served in the military. Another 3 million are currently serving, with almost 2 million adult family members at their sides. Throw in the immediate family members of veterans, and almost 50 million adult Americas have either served in the military or have an immediate family member who has.

According to a U.S. Census Report, 15.8 million veterans (71 percent) voted in the 2008 presidential election. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, active duty military personnel voted at a rate of 73 percent in 2008. By contrast, only 64 percent of all voting-age citizens cast a ballot four years ago.

Military personnel, veterans, and their family members vote at significantly higher rates than their civilian counterparts. This is a great demonstration of the concern veterans and military hold for their personal welfare and for the welfare of their local communities. It's also a wake-up call to political candidates.

Simplifying the numbers: Nearly 24 percent of likely voters this November will have a direct familial relationship with someone who is serving or has served in the military. That sounds like a crucial demographic for anyone running for any office anywhere.

However, a growing military-civilian divide in this country leaves an impression that the veteran voter might not be as savvy as a civilian, and that candidates might not concern themselves with this population.

Governor Romney fell into this trap during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. His speech mentioned neither veterans nor the current war in Afghanistan, and this may cost the Romney ticket votes from the military community.

But he is not alone. A survey of 786 active duty forces and 1,983 veterans and retirees conducted by Military Times, showed that about 33 percent strongly agree and 44 percent agree that the military community has little in common with the rest of the country and that most civilians do not understand the military.

This apparent divide can be felt most significantly at a community level. Therefore, it affects local politics. At the same time, 132 Congressional races (28 percent) in the 2012 primaries involve a veteran candidate. This is a significant display of leadership.

So, not only do elected officials depend on the votes of veterans and military families, they also need to be able to work with veterans once they are elected.

Veterans aren't out of touch with the issues. From healthcare to foreign policy, they actually hold a unique understanding of what is happening in this country. They have also served as employees of the federal government and recipients of many government provisions and services -- both of which give them specific insight into the way government works.

Certainly for the politician -- and likely for the rest of us as well -- it would behoove us to become more educated on how to positively engage with veterans. After all, they are your neighbors, your representatives, your family members. And someday you might want them to vote for you, too.

This piece was co-authored by Chris Marvin and Donniecia Cummings. Donniecia is a John Glenn Fellow at The Ohio State University who recently completed a summer internship in Washington DC working on the Got Your 6 campaign.