Comparing IRV With Balloting for Overseas Absentee Voters

IRV Empowering Disenfranchised Military & Overseas Voters

Continued extensive deployment of American military personnel overseas is certain. When these brave men and women want to have their voices heard in Washington, inconsistent absentee voting policies and flawed outreach will make the distance between the battlefield and the ballot box seem all the more insurmountable. Other overseas voters face similar dilemmas. "Will my vote get counted?" is a question no American should have to ask no matter where they are in the world.

Absentee voting as a whole has been on the rise for some time in America and military absentee voting is currently unprecedented. For example, in just the last four years the state of California, which ranks number one nationwide in overseas military deployments, has seen absentee voting requests quadruple.

Unfortunately, efforts to improve voting systems to better protect the rights of our fellow Americans abroad have not increased in tandem. When runoff elections take place shortly after general elections, or when general elections take place shortly after primaries, the amount of time for receiving, completing, and returning a ballot can be short. Often times ballot return windows of a mere two weeks leave military personel and other overseas voters with no voice in runoff elections. We advocate for the adoption of instant runoff voting for overseas absentee ballots.

Overseas voters receive two ballots: a standard ballot for the first election and a ranked choice 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.

Using ranked choice ballots saves a great deal of money because the addional cost of printing runoff ballots and affixing them with the necessary postage is eliminated. The typically low return rate of runoff ballots is also avoided. It is difficult in many parts of the world to quickly learn of election results.

Problems With How Overseas Absentee Voting Is Currently Done

The short time between elections often creates a barrier to participation for military and overseas voters. From one election round to the next, votes need to be counted, results certified, new ballots printed and mailed to places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and returned. Given this elaborate process, it is not surprising that ballots from military and overseas voters often do not make it back home in time to be counted.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) of the U.S. Department of Defense have recommended that ballots be mailed to overseas voters at least 45 days before an election. States complying with this requirement have had to lengthen their campaign seasons by moving primary elections to August from September and runoff elections all the way to mid-December. Although these changes are helpful to overseas voters, they result in longer, more expensive campaigns for voters back home.

Local elections pose an even greater problem than federal elections for military and overseas voters. Because local elections are not covered by federal laws such as the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) that protect overseas voters, some local runoff elections occur three weeks or less after the first round. This makes it almost impossible for overseas voters to stay connected to their community's democratic process.

How IRV Ballots Address These Problems

Instant runoff ballots allow an overseas voter to rank as many candidates on the ballot as he or she likes in order of preference. Overseas voters receive two ballots - a standard ballot for the first election and a ranked choice 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, the ranked ballot is counted towards the highest ranked candidate who advances to the second round.

Because both ballots are returned simultaneously, a short delay between elections does not hurt the ability of military and overseas voters to participate in both rounds. This is beneficial because generally turnout drops more the longer the delay between rounds of elections. It also avoids the election integrity and security concerns of accomplishing overseas balloting by email or fax. 

The ranked ballot solution is also applicable in jurisdictions that do not hold runoff elections. In these places, overseas voters can submit a ranked ballot for a primary election. Their rankings are then used to determine their general election preference without the need for a second ballot.

The following jurisdictions have adopted instant runoff ballots for military and overseas voters:

Louisiana has used this system since 1990. The Arkansas legislature initially adopted ranked ballots for military voters only; in 2007, it voted unanimously to extend the program to all overseas voters. The use of ranked ballots for overseas voters has received pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

For More Information

For more information on IRV and Overseas Absentee Voting, visit IncludeEveryVoter.org.