The Case for Ranked Choice Ballots for Military and Overseas Voters New York City, Alabama, Georgia, and Nationwide

by Drew Spencer // Published August 14, 2013
Military Voter

This summer, the Presidential Voting Commission held two hearings to discuss the problems with access to the polls in the counties of Miami-Dade (FL) and Denver (CO) and potential fixes. FairVote last week submitted formal testimony to the Commission. Along with other important proposals, our director Rob Richie advocated for the adoption of the increasingly common practice of ranked choice voting for military and overseas voters when a runoff or general election takes place shortly after the first round of voting.

Miami-Dade and Denver provide excellent examples of how overseas voters can be disenfranchised in decisive runoff elections in many key local elections. The City of Miami, for example, holds runoff elections only a week after the first round of voting - clearly not enough time for overseas voters to receive and return a ballot through the mail. Indeed, nearly all its localities with two rounds of voting have a schedule that would violate federal laws designed to protect overseas voters. The same is true for Denver.

New York City's mayoral election is getting a lot of attention this fall, and it is also a disaster for military and overseas voters. FairVote this month sent members of the City Council a letter of support for a bill currently being considered in New York City to empower overseas voters to fully participate in the city's primary runoff elections with ranked choice voting. That bill would do a far better job of including overseas voters than the alternative proposals, all of which would either eliminate the runoffs or impose long delays between rounds of balloting.

This issue has arisen other places recently as well. Last month, a federal court order declared that Alabama must use ranked choice ballots for overseas military voters to ensure that they can participate fully in the upcoming congressional district one special election Republican primary runoffs. Meanwhile, Georgia has run into serious issues with its primary and general election runoffs, with a court order potentially requiring them to hold up to six elections over a period of seven months, and some in the state are rightly suggesting the use of ranked choice voting ballots to get out of that bind.

States and local jurisdictions that use runoff elections with sequential balloting seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to respecting the votes of their deployed military and other absentee voters. On the one hand, runoff elections tend to show a sharp decline in turnout between the first and second election, a trend that becomes much worse the longer the period of time between rounds - a fact recently highlighted in our new report on the state of congressional primary runoff elections. On the other, overseas voters need time to receive, fill out, and return ballots; for congressional elections, federal law requires that ballots be sent 45 days prior to the election that ballot will be counted for.

Ranked choice voting gives these places the best of both worlds. Every overseas voter can receive a ballot for the first election and simultaneously receive a ranked choice ballot for the second. That way the first ballot counts like any other, and in the event of a runoff, the second ballot counts for whichever candidate in the runoff the voter ranked highest. Alternatively, overseas voters could receive only the ranked choice ballot, which would count for its first choice in the first election and for the highest ranked continuing candidate in the runoff. In either case, the runoff can occur a short time after the first election, because the overseas ballots will already be in.

FairVote has written articles comparing ranked choice voting with sequential balloting, and about the intersection of this reform with federal laws like the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE). We have demonstrated, with detailed analysis, that this reform is an effective and legal solution for places wanting to ensure that military and overseas voters will not be disenfranchised.

All our analysis suggests that this system works, and it works well. For an illustrative example of its success, consider the following comments from Chris Whitmire, the South Carolina State Board of Elections' Communications Director, which were sent to us May 8, 2013, and which we share with his permission:

We consider it an unqualified success. We've heard nothing but good things from voters about it. In the past, UOCAVA [overseas] voters had a very difficult time participating in runoffs due to the two-week turnaround time. In the June 2012 primary, 92.5% of UOCAVA primary voters also participated in the runoff. That is exceptional, and that doesn't even take into account those voters who may not have had a runoff to vote for. The real participation rate could be closer to 100%.

The use of ranked ballots for overseas voters is of such clear utility that the one time it has been before voters to decide - in the city of Springfield, Illinois, as a stand-alone ballot question that explained the procedure in some detail - it passed with a whopping 91% in support.

To learn more about the use of ranked choice voting for overseas voters, please check out For information about how ranked choice voting could be used by all voters, rendering runoff elections unnecessary, check out FairVote's information page on instant runoff voting (the form of ranked choice voting used for all voters in a number of cities).