Today, voters in Alabama will vote in the primary election for U.S. Senate, to fill Jeff Session’s vacant seat. However, military and overseas voters have already been voting - and they had the opportunity to rank their choices with an “instant runoff” ballot.
Like many southern states, Alabama holds primary runoff elections if no candidate receives a majority in either party’s primary election. This year, with ten candidates for the Republican nomination and eight for the Democratic nomination, both parties will likely hold runoff elections on September 26. Federal law requires that military and overseas voters be sent ballots 45 days in advance of any election. There isn’t enough time to determine which candidates will make the runoff and send overseas voters their runoff ballots to make that deadline.
Some states have addressed this by extending the time between the first and second round of voting. However, Alabama, has joined Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi (on a temporary basis), South Carolina, and some municipalities in adopting a sensible approach to avoid that. Military and overseas voters need to only vote once - by returning a runoff ballot ranking candidates in order of choice. In the runoff election, their ballot will count for whichever of the two runoff candidates they ranked highest.
In 2012, Alabama was sued by the DOJ for failure to act in accordance with the MOVE Act, which was prepared for a special election. A federal judge ordered Alabama to send ranked choice voting (RCV) ballots to military overseas voters - the state’s requested remedy for the primary election in 2013. The Alabama legislature in 2014 passed a bill that would allow voters overseas to use a special ballot, which gives military the ability to mark their preferences in races with three or more candidates. The first ballot is standard and the second is a ranked ballot to be used in case of a runoff.
Voter turnout has been the biggest issue. Prior to the state adopting RCV for overseas voters, voters would miss key deadlines for mailing back in their ballots for primaries and runoff elections. RCV has been a catalyst for sustaining voter turnout. Allowing voters to rank their candidates in order of preference automatically creates a better voting turnout because every voter who returns a ranked ballot will have that ballot count in the runoff without needing to vote a second time.
Ultimately, Alabama could achieve those benefits for all voters. As it is, turnout in primary runoff nearly always declines. A FairVote study of the last 190 regularly scheduled primary runoffs found that turnout declined in 183 of 190 races, dropping by an average of 58.6% in 2016. If every voter used a ranked ballot, no runoff elections would need to be held - preserving higher turnout, saving taxpayers money and, in the case of vacancies, allowing the vacant seat to be filled more quickly with an elected representative. Ranked choice voting is empowering military and overseas voters in five states including Alabama; perhaps in the future it will empower all such voters.