Proven Innovations to Uphold Voting Rights for Overseas Voters

by Drew Spencer // Published May 20, 2014

Download FairVote's recently submitted testimony to the Senate Rules Committee here!

FairVote has consistently argued for a few very simple reforms to better promote participation in elections by military and overseas voters, who must generally be given time to receive, fill out, and return a mailed ballot in order to ensure that their votes are counted.

In particular, we have pushed for the use of ranked choice voting ballots, a particularly effective reform – and one that is being adopted by a growing number of states – to accommodate military and overseas voters who would like to participate in places that hold two elections in quick succession: a first election followed by a runoff election.

Ordinarily, such elections just do not provide enough time for overseas voters to receive and return their ballots before the date of the runoff election has come and gone. But there is an easy way to allow them to participate fully without needing any extra time between elections or resorting to dependence on the electronic transmission of ballots: the use of a ranked choice voting ballot for the runoff.

It works like this: absentee voters receive a ballot for the first election that looks just like any other ballot. They mark the candidate they want to vote for in the first round, and put that ballot in a sealed envelope to send back.

At the same time, however, they also receive a ballot for the runoff election. They do not yet know which candidates from the first round will appear in the runoff election, and so they rank every candidate they support in order of preference. If their first-choice candidate makes the runoff, their ranked ballot counts for that candidate. If their first-choice does not, then it will count for the second choice, or whichever remaining candidate they ranked highest.

This method is now in use in all congressional primary elections with more than two candidates (the ones that might result in a primary runoff) in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina, as well as all of Louisiana’s congressional elections in November. Nonetheless, it has gotten insufficient attention from policymakers at the federal level. For example, FairVote submitted testimony to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration arguing that it should recommend this common sense reform, but even though the final report was commendable for a number of reasons, it never mentioned the use of ranked ballots for military and overseas voters.

On May 14, 2014, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration held a hearing titled Collection, Analysis and Use of Data: A Measured Approach to Improving Election Administration, and FairVote again submitted written testimony arguing for a more inclusive approach to ensuring that military and overseas voters would be counted in runoff elections. We noted the problem of short periods between election rounds in places with runoff elections and presented what we think is the best solution. We also noted that a similar reform could prevent overseas voters in presidential races from inadvertently wasting their votes on candidates who have withdrawn. Finally, we called on the committee to look into the benefits of expanded use of voter guides, at least in online form.

In keeping with the hearing’s focus on data-driven approaches to election administration, we asked that the committee recommend federal research into a number of topics:

  • Participation rates among military and overseas voters in runoff elections generally;
  • The impact of the use of ranked choice voting ballots for participation by military and overseas voters in runoff elections;
  • The impact of shorter runoff periods on turnout among in-person voters;
  • The disproportionate percentage of votes cast by overseas voters for withdrawn presidential candidates in presidential primaries;
  • The costs, if any, associated with the use of ranked choice voting for overseas and military voters and the expanded use of voter guides.

We fully expect that if the committee does recommend research into these topics, that research will lead to a wholehearted recommendation that still more states adopt these remarkably effective and inexpensive reforms.