Southern States Employ Ranked-Choice Voting to Meet Short Timetables
Military and overseas voters can participate in run-offs despite sluggish mail

By Meg Coady and Courtney McRae
Published June 15th 2006 in
Getting absentee ballots to far-off U.S. soldiers and citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea is a challenge. Foreign mail services can be unreliable and slow, and inevitably, some ballots get delayed or lost.

But printing, mailing, casting and returning a ballot for a run-off election in as little time as a few weeks? Nearly impossible.

The compressed time between primaries and run-off votes in many Southern states have prompted lawmakers and election officials to find creative ways to ensure that voters in distant locales can participate fully in the vote – and to respond to U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) complaints about violating some overseas’ voters access to participation in a run-off election.

States have responded to complaints that their election timeframe violates the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), which protects the voting rights of members of the military, their families and other Americans living overseas.

South Carolina joined Louisiana and Arkansas by providing citizens in the military with a ranked-choice voting system, thereby eliminating the need to vote again in the case of a runoff. Under the new system, UOCAVA voters receive ballots in which they rank candidates based on preference.

South Carolina and Louisiana also extend the opportunity to all citizens living abroad. North Carolina boasts its own particular solution — mailing both the primary and primary run-off ballots at the same time making runoff ballots more accessible if needed, while Alabama simply expanded the period between elections from three to five weeks to address the problem.

Tar Heel State voters falling under UOCAVA receive a blank write-in ballot along with a regular, pre-printed primary ballot to return with their second candidate preferences in the event of a run-off.

"We are pleased to see a demonstrated commitment by the Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina officials to assure that military members and overseas voters have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the state's second primary elections," said Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general for DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in a press release. "These measures provide a permanent solution to the difficulties created by their previous run-off schedules, and resolve our concerns about the rights of military and overseas voters to have their ballots counted in all future primary run-off elections."

The U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), the agency that administers UOCAVA, does not take a firm stance on the merits of instant run-off voting [IRV]. “The Department's primary concern is that overseas military and civilians are able to exercise their right to vote” said an FVAP defense spokesperson. “We are not taking a position on whether IRV should be made available for overseas military and civil personnel.”

States stressed different priorities when crafting a change to election plans. “IRV was considered because the General Assembly had a strong desire to maintain the current time frame between the primary and run-offs,” said Marci Andino, executive director of South Carolina’s State Election Commission. “IRV was the only option that would allow this.”

Lawmakers in the state responded quickly to a letter from DOJ threatening legal action if the voting rights of UOCAVA voters were not protected in the run-off. A month after receiving the complaint, lawmakers passed a bill implementing the voting method.

With the system, if no candidate receives a majority of the votes based on voters’ first choices, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes are then recalculated using the second choices of voters who originally favored the eliminated candidate. This process is repeated until a candidate receives a majority.

Arkansas and Louisiana adopted the ranked-choice voting system under less pressure.

Louisiana has been using the voting method since the early 1990s as a solution to its compressed election timetable.

Arkansas, which also employs run-off votes, adopted the ranked-choice voting system in May 2005.

According to Tim Humphries, legal council for the Arkansas Department of State, the implementation process of the ranked-choice voting for overseas and military voters was not difficult. The education of election commissions, clerks and voters proved to be the only barrier.

Humphries said the process has served the state well.

“I think it is possible that it could be extended to all overseas voters,” said Humphries of the IRV process. Currently five other cities around the nation have followed suit and implemented IRV.

Nationally, however, IRV and other forms of ranked-choice voting have not caught on, with only a handful of municipalities (San Francisco, Berkeley, Calif., and Burlington, Vt.) using the method for local elections. Some of the arguments against the use of IRV question voters’ ability to understand the logistics of ranked-choice voting and the costs associated with its implementation.

Despite these arguments, Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, remains positive about the direction of IRV. “IRV has passed every test it has faced so far in flying colors,” he said, “If military voters from Arkansas and South Carolina handle the system well, it will be more evidence of its value being real, not just theoretical.”

Lawmakers in a number of states – including California, Maine, New Mexico and New Jersey – have introduced legislation for instant runoff voting, but none have garnered the necessary support to implement the measure statewide. Currently several localities such as Denver, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, N.M. and Pierce County, Wash. have created task forces to study IRV. Bills are currently pending in Iowa and Massachusetts.

According to FairVote, instant-runoff voting’s supporters include Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Democratic party chairman Howard Dean, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Yet, even with such notable figures backing the alternative voting system, few national initiatives have materialized. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., introduced H.R. 2690 in May 2005, which would require federal elections to employ IRV. The bill, however, has idled in committee.
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