Voices & Choices

Solving Problems: Ranked Ballots for Military & Overseas Voters

Solving Problems: Ranked Ballots for Military & Overseas Voters

As the general election nears, FairVote will discuss problems with our election system and electoral solutions offered by ranked choice voting.

Ensuring that eligible citizens living beyond the U.S. border are afforded the right to vote is a key concern for modern democracies. Military and overseas voters in the U.S. are protected by a number of federal laws - the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act - yet differing state standards can present challenges to Americans living abroad who wish to participate in the political process. As FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie testified to the Presidential Voting Commission in 2013, more than four million eligible voters in the last presidential election (excluding active duty military personnel) lived overseas. Many of those in the military face challenges in participating in the democracy they protect. Clearly, this is a problem worth solving.

Overseas voters are particularly stymied by runoff elections and presidential nominating elections (runoff elections have their own problems to which FairVote has proposed solutions), largely because of their timing. Federal law requires states to provide their military and overseas voters with ballots at least 45 days before any federal election, but runoff elections require a new set of ballots. Sending a second set of ballots requires an enormous delay, which drives down turnout in the runoff election for in-person and overseas voters. In presidential nominating contests, many presidential candidates withdraw quickly after the first few primaries, before military and overseas ballots can be counted. Subsequent primaries may receive military and overseas ballots cast for candidates no longer in the race, since these voters have no way of changing their vote after their favorite candidate has dropped out. 

Some states have already taken the lead in solving these problems. Five states have used ranked ballots for military and overseas voters for various state and federal elections. These states issue two ballots to overseas and military voters. The first is a standard ballot, on which voters select one candidate like in most elections. The second is a ranked ballot. These ballots allow voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference, so their votes can be cast to their preferred candidate in the event of a runoff. “We consider [ranked ballots] an unqualified success,” said Chris Whitmire of the South Carolina Election Commission “We’ve heard nothing but good things from voters about it. In the past, [overseas] voters had a very difficult time participating in runoffs due to the two-week turnaround time.”

These ballots would improve nominating elections for military and overseas voters as well. As candidates drop out of the nominating race, domestic voters can change their preferences before voting. However, voters who live and/or serve abroad do not always have this luxury. Coverage of primary contests is less common outside the United States, and ballots mailed from abroad take longer to count than those mailed within the country or cast in-person. Ranked choice voting solves these problems. By allowing voters to indicate the full breadth of their preferences, ranked choice voting ensures that their voices will be counted even if their first choice candidate drops out of the race.

As we’ve previously discussed, primary and runoff elections are flawed in this country. Geography has presented an additional problem, as millions of Americans living overseas and serving in our military unfairly face tough obstacles in order to participate in the political process. These problems are solvable modern day voting technology through the use of a simple voting method already used in a dozen cities across the country. Current use of ranked choice ballots for military and overseas voters should be drastically expanded to ensure the full enfranchisement of all Americans.


Image source: The U.S. Army


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