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American citizens living abroad, including men and women in uniform, often face difficulties voting in elections at home. Due to the logistics of election administration, many overseas voters do not receive their ballots in time to return them and have them counted. Some cities and states have dealt with this by moving primaries earlier or runoffs later, but this only lengthens the election season.

Instant runoff ballots can ensure the election calendar will not present an obstacle to overseas ballots being returned in time to be counted. Overseas voters are able to indicate their preferences for multiple election rounds by ranking candidates, thereby eliminating the need to return multiple ballots.

This solution has been adopted by a number of states and cities to protect the voting rights of their military and overseas voters.

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The Problem

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.

The Solution

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.

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.

Get Involved

Ask your elected officials to support or introduce legislation implementing instant runoff ballots for overseas voters. Current legislation includes: For more information and resources on this issue, visit www.FairVote.org. Contact us at (301) 270-4616 or irv@fairvote.org.