Ranked Choice Absentee Ballots: Preventing the Disenfranchisement of Military and Overseas Voters

by Cynthia Okechukwu // Published July 21, 2011

American citizens living abroad, including men and women in uniform, all too often face difficulties in voting in elections at home. When the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) was passed in 2009, it was widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive reforms for military and overseas voters. Enacted to expand the protections of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 (UOCAVA), the MOVE Act mandated, among other provisions, that states send timely requested absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters at least 45 days before a federal election.

In the nearly two years since the MOVE Act was passed, many states have made significant changes to their election laws to help guarantee military and overseas voters’ access to the ballot. To comply with the 45-day requirement, some like Minnesota and Vermont have voluntarily moved up the dates of their primary elections. Others like Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina have changed the dates of their primary runoff elections as a result of UOCAVA enforcement lawsuits brought by the Department of Justice.

There is still a long way to go, however, to fully enfranchise the roughly 6.6 million Americans in uniform or residing abroad. A recent report by the Military Voter Protection Project found that only 4.6 percent of the nearly 2 million military voters covered by the study cast an absentee ballot that counted in 2010. And just this week, Senator John Cornyn of Texas sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder to protest what he called the Department of Justice’s “poor track record” of enforcing the MOVE Act’s 45-day requirement for the November 2010 elections.

Military and overseas voters continue to point to tight ballot turnaround times as an obstacle to voting in federal, state, and local elections. The problem is even worse in states where primary and general elections, or first and second elections in traditional runoff systems, are held close together. In those cases, there is often not enough time for election officials to count first-round votes, certify the results, and print and mail absentee ballots, and for military and overseas voters to request their ballots, fill them out, and return them in time to be counted. When their ballots arrive too late—or don’t arrive at all—voters are effectively disenfranchised and excluded from the political process.

Ranked choice absentee ballots (also known as “instant runoff absentee ballots”) provide a legal and practical solution to the ballot transit time issue. Instead of requiring voters to request and return separate ballots for a primary and general election, or each round in a runoff system, voters receive two ballots: a standard absentee ballot for the first election and a ranked choice absentee ballot for the second election. The ranked ballot contains all the candidates from the first election, and voters rank them in order of preference, from first to last. Both ballots are returned before the first election, and the standard ballot is counted as usual. In the event of a runoff election or a general election, the ranked ballot is counted towards the highest ranked candidate who advances to the second round.

Ranked choice absentee ballots are already used successfully for runoff elections in Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Springfield, Illinois. Because voters receive and return both ballots at the same time, they don’t have to worry that the short turnaround times between elections will keep them from participating in a general or runoff election. These ballots also do not raise the security and election integrity concerns associated with proposed technological innovations such as ballot submission online or via e-mail or fax.

In addition, ranked choice absentee ballots can help states avoid the burden of changing their election dates. While such changes may help states avoid DOJ lawsuits by providing more time for military and overseas voters to return ballots, they may also have the unintended consequence of reducing turnout among polling place voters. As a forthcoming FairVote report indicates, the greater the time between elections, the greater the dropoff in voter turnout. For example, when Texas increased the gap between election rounds, turnout in runoffs generally dropped significantly.

State-by-state implementation of ranked choice absentee ballots is a crucial step toward effectively enfranchising military and overseas voters, but it is only part of the answer. States enjoy broad discretion in establishing voter registration requirements and ballot return deadlines, and as a result these voters are beset with a confusing patchwork of state and local regulations and processes for voting absentee. UOCAVA and the MOVE Act also do not directly cover state and local elections, even though these elections often have tighter ballot turnaround times than do federal races.

The Uniform Law Commission has sought to remedy these issues by developing the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act (UMOVA), a model state bill to extend UOCAVA and MOVE Act protections to all state and local elections. Six states, including Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah have passed the act so far, and more have had UMOVA bills introduced in the legislature.

FairVote believes that national, state, and local officials should continue to address ballot-access barriers that military and overseas voters still face today. Ranked choice absentee ballots, along with greater uniformity in absentee voting rules from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, will help make the promises of the MOVE Act real for millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information on the use of ranked choice ballots for military and overseas voters, including a detailed review of legal issues related to the proposal, see the new FairVote Policy Perspective, Legality of the Use of Ranked Choice Absentee Ballots for Military and Overseas Voters.